New Dirigibles Are Power Plants In The Sky

We wonder if a floating wind turbine generator (translated) like this one would alleviate some of the complaints we hear about ground-based turbines. This huge helium-filled structure is designed to generate electricity at high altitude, where winds are stronger and blow much more consistently than near ground level. We’ve read complaints at the unsightliness of wind farms, and the noise that they make as the turbines spin. A test run took place at only 350 feet, but this generator is meant to fly at an altitude of 2000 feet. We’d bet it’s much less obtrusive and much quieter at that distance.

There isn’t a whole lot to the lighter-than-air assembly. It’s got an aerodynamic balloon with stabilizing fins, and a propeller attached to a generator at the center. The tether that holds it in place also carries the conductors which translate the power down to the ground. There is mention of a fail-safe system that allows for a slow descent if it get gets away from its tether, so you shouldn’t have to worry about the sky falling on you.

It’s certainly an interesting idea. For some reason this makes us think of the space-based solar generator panels found on Larry Niven’s Ringworld.

[via Reddit]

87 thoughts on “New Dirigibles Are Power Plants In The Sky

  1. I’m not buying the “won’t spoil the view” argument, personally. A 35-ft-diameter dirigible (and even larger if they scale up) floating 2000 ft in the air is going to be visible to a *lot* more people than a 200ft turbine on the ground. Especially if you put a fleet of them up there.

    Now, stick them up in the *jetstream*, and you’re a lot closer to viability–not only does it make NIMBY a bit easier to handle, but the winds move a lot faster up there.

    1. It will be about the size of a passing Cessna, and basically silent at that distance. It will be less obtrusive than an airport several dozen miles away, which most places also have.

    1. just today i was wondering what the exact wind direction was, and found myself irritated that i was in a spot with no visible wind turbine.

      they win over the sight of a coal or nuclear plant every time for me, even when i lived just 200m from one (could only barely hear it at certain distances)

    2. They are quite loud, though. The Fox Islands wind farm here in Maine has quite a few people upset because of the noise. Maybe it’s not so bad when you can throw them out in a field, but in close proximity on the island, you just can’t get away from the sound.

      1. I always find the noise complaints a bit funny. Now, I don’t live next to a turbine, but I’ve stood under one of the new giant ones about a hundred feet from the highway*, and I could barely hear it over the road noise. I think the only reason I could was that the soft whooshing was a much lower frequency. It was a pretty windy day, too.
        People are happy to live next to major roadways, so I wonder what gives.

        *not an interstate or anything, just a busy rural road.

    1. Now there is a marketing idea.

      New from AwesomeTech! Its the DigiDirigible!

      Have a new cell tower up in hours instead of weeks! It is self powered! Makes those rotten hippies ecstatic while on their iPhones!

      Need to upgrade? No problem! Just use the included winch to take that sucker back to earth for a quick board swap!

      Get yours Today!

      1. I’m reminded of the time I tied a kite to my fishing line. By the time I reached the end of my reel, the kite was so far away I could barely see it. It took me at least an hour to reel that thing back in.

    2. Knowing the business model of all major carriers at this point, they would probably overload it until it could barely hover, use all power it generated for running their network, and then charge the customers more for it even if they live nowhere near the blimptennas.

      1. This is incredibly cynical. I hate it in the hacking community when people say shit wont work or it isn’t viable.

        Ever heard of market forces? They charge that money for a reason….

  2. Put fleets of them over cities where the power is needed, limits transmission costs and who cares about the view? Okay, a problem for aircraft, but just don’t put them out near the airport.
    They don’t say what the output of this one is, or what they expect bigger ones to generate. But it must be easy to add a few more when you need them, which is particularly nice.

    1. Blimp-makers have started to go back to hydrogen. It’s been fairly-well proved (among the 2 people who care about it) that the most famous example, the Hindenburg, probably went up due to the metallised paint it was covered with.

      There was a controversy a few years ago, the US government owned the biggest repository of helium, a by-product from some nuclear thing or other, and were going to sell it off very cheap, because there was little demand, and it was costing them to warehouse it. The problem is, once it’s gone, there’s only a small amount produced every year, so if someone invents a use tomorrow, we’re screwed.

  3. “This huge helium-filled structure”

    And, unfortunately, that is why this idea is DOA. Helium is a mined resource, not manufactured. There is only so much of on Earth and we’re already starting to hear complaints from scientists and industry that things like party balloons are causing rapid exhaustion of that supply. Filling an army of these things (as would be needed to produce a significant amount of power) would use massive amounts of helium and would need to be re-filled regularly.

    You could look into using hydrogen instead, but then you’d have all of the safety concerns of manufacturing and handling massive quantities of highly flammable hydrogen. Also, hydrogen is so small that is leaks through the walls of, pretty much, anything it is stored in (even thick steel tanks) over time. That’s one of the many problems also faced by hydrogen powered cars.

    1. while its true we are running low on helium, scientists are most definately not complaining about party baloons using it up because the amount is extremely miniscule compared to the amount used in industry. eliminating helium use in baloons would have a nearly unnoticeable effect on the world supply

    2. If there’s a tiny bit of moisture in the air up there and I’m willing to bet there is, it ought to be relatively simple to do a little bit of electrolysis with the water using the turbine as a power source, dump the oxygen and use the hydrogen to refill the balloon. Sure you’ve gotta fill it in the first place and this probably won’t be helpful above deserts but it would reduce maintenance costs and in deserts you can always use solar panels.

      1. For the trouble, and to avoid the weight of electrolysers, just pull the thing down on it’s tether now and then, and refill it from a tank. Much simpler, much less to go wrong. Almost certainly cheaper and more efficient.

      1. Phil Spector’s escaped from prison and he’s LIQUEFYING HELIUM! Oh noes!

        I see his point, it’s an issue that can be expressed in economic terms, like most things. Party balloons are driving the price up, previously they were getting a discounted deal by being the only customer.

        The simple economic answer, is to buy up the helium and store it privately. If you bought enough, there might be enough profit to keep the storage running. If you bought enough, it’d put the price up, and science would have a supply.

        It’d seem sensible for some governments to do an assessment, what the yearly production is going to be (from nuclear breakdown), and what the expected future growth will be (which must be quite a lot, cryonic superconductors are still in their infancy, but have infinite uses). Then from there, sort out some properly regulated storage.

  4. Evidently the word hasn’t gotten out that helium is one of those natural resources that aren’t renewable,and supplies will get tighter. When it comes to visual aesthetics I’m of the opinion of if you don’t like the way something looks quite staring at it. The web page mentions 1000 meters and my handy dan converter says that equal to 3280.83 feet. This is going to be seen by more people that the current conventional turbines. Although the web page doesn’t suggest that this is an alternative to commercial wind farms, just an alternative to create electrical power for remote locations. That’s over a 1/2 mile of tether coming down if it breaks at the turbine, or dragging across the country side if it breaks at the ground. I’d want to see that from afar

    1. Good point. Here’s my fix:
      1. The cable is, of course, attached to a winch.
      2. There are small helium balloons tied to the cable every little ways, close enough together so the cable will float if it breaks.
      – Put little propellers on them if you want, and generate a little more power. Maybe for the control electronics?
      3. Another small winch at the dirigible end.
      4. If the cable breaks, both ends reel in.
      5. The helium balloons release as they reach the winches, and slide along the cable thus not fouling the winches.
      6. Ooh, even better: The broken cable on the dirigible end floats upward and you can snag it, as the dirigible drifts downwind, from a helicopter, so you don’t have to crash-land the drifting dirigible. Then you tie a weight to the end of the dirigible’s broken cable, tie the mid-point of the cable to a tow line and use the chopper to tow the dirigible to where you want to secure it. Do not attempt during a lightning storm.

      Presto. No more crashed power cables dragging across peoples rooftops. And you get to recover the dirigible.

  5. Interesting, but I have like concept for the Magenn power balloons. Their website says that they estimate they will begin shipping in 2010-2011, but they haven’t updated the website for a couple of years.

  6. Very interesting solution. I’m skeptical though, looking at the size of the actual turbine about just how much energy is going to be produced compared to materials and maintenance costs. I guess real time numbers will demonstrate if this is really feasible or not (NIMBY and other non-technical arguments aside).

  7. What is stopping corporations/cities/schools etc from placing standard ones all over thier roofs? At my College we have solar and wind power near the entrance of the campus. But they are the smaller units. I wonder what it would be like on a skyscraper where winds are insanely high? Why wouldn’t the builders place a bunch of these on a roof as it must be an amazing amount of power that would be produced?

    1. 100,000 cubic feet wasted every Thanksgiving Day on Macy’s Parade floats. They tried recycling it last year, it didn’t work (don’t know why) so they just lightened the upper atmosphere.

  8. Hmmm…This is a ponderance: Power generating “barrage’ balloons, 2000 ft.up, reflecting the sky and blending in with it. Held to the ground by power conducting cables. They will definitely need to be placed in locations where there are no commercial or private air routes. Planes and “barrage” balloons with long electrical cables have a tendency to cause problems when they get together. Are the balloons going to have warning lights like strobes and red lights? Will the cables have lights also? The cost of the marker lights and the extremely remote locations these would need to be located would probably more than the cost savings of the electricity generated. Just a ponderance.

  9. I’m amazed no one has brought up how much safer this might be for birds of prey or other soaring birds like turkey vultures.

    regular wind turbines kill LOTS of eagles, hawks, and other raptors.

    1. That’s not true.
      This was always a concern here in Germany,
      but several investigations have shown that
      static structures like skyscrapers, bridges and
      power lines kill much more birds than wind turbines.

      Seems that birds can see the moving wings better
      than a small cable in the air, or a window in a

      1. I saw a flock of geese fly into a power line. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. One hit both sides of the power line, from head to tail and in a bright and loud flash….poof…fried dead and fell to the ground.

        It was awesome!

    1. Although helium is collected as part of the natural gas extraction process, it is not found with all natural gas deposits. Helium is the alpha particles emitted from decaying radioactive elements (after the alpha particles collect electrons, that is). Locations with natural gas deposits happen to be suitable for trapping and aggregating these particles. Very few locations worldwide provide these two conditions concurrently.

  10. Make it float with steam (like the german Heidas Balloon) and i buy a dozen off those!

    Heh ow many of those would be needed to power a boat? And how big would it have to be for a full blown container freighter?

  11. So can anyone tell me the cost to maintain any wind power generator, the frequency of said maintenance? I keep hearing all this talk about free energy from wind but not one word about the fact they are machines with parts that wear out.

  12. “at high altitude, where winds are stronger and blow much more consistently”

    Yes, that is partially true.

    Only problem is, the winds that blow are constantly shifting, so unless you follow the stream around, you are still getting a huge variation in output.

      1. Nicely done, the Hindenberg *cough*.
        And Tenerife is, of course, why we no longer use kerosene in jet aircraft.
        (Almost 64 percent of the people on the Hindenburg survived. It was _ten_ percent for Tenerife)

        Hydrogen is lighter than air. It burns up. You’re a hacker, make some and try it.

        We have learned a couple of things about materials technology since the Hindenburg.
        Explosion vents… conductive Mylar films… carbon fibre fabrics.

        Helium is a precious resource. We should conserve it for things that really matter.

      2. Hi HADer’s,

        Hindenburg is the only example to hydrogen use danger… And it’s quite a bad example.
        What you can see in the film, it’s not an hydrogen explosion but the vessel combustion.
        An hydrogen explosion for such a volume would have caused eardrum burst, pulmonary hemorrhage… That was not the case.
        Hydrogen is so light, and so easily burnt that it is *not so dangerous* (I’m not responsible blah blah, of your experiments…).
        Helium is quite as light as hydrogen so leakage issue is quite the same.
        To my knowledge, the only proven accidents (except space launchers) due to hydrogen explosion is in The Netherlands at the beginning of XXth century when hydrogen network was used to light public buildings.

  13. No it isn’t. The Germans were idiots. That’s literally a lead balloon. Dumbest thing ever. The reason hydrogen would be a problem is stated above. It leaks out fairly quickly.

    Either way I feel like there are too many practical and logistical problems with this design to ever have it reach mass implementation.

  14. They’ll be pretty at sunset and moonrise.

    A 35 foot device will look larger than the moon if you are closer than 4000 feet to it, which means anyone within about 3000 feet of the base of the tether.

    Of course, the mundane details require that nobody live within a tether’s length of the base of the tether.

    Remember also that the 35 foot device is a prototype. Anything that is commercically deployed will be as large as possible.

  15. Just one question about hydrogen leaks, since the thing is held by a tether why not just run a plastic gas tube (I’m sure you could get all you want at an Aquarium supply store) along with the tether and “top up” the blimp from a hydrogen tank on the ground when you need it, and bets of all you won’t have to worry about the hydrogen draining out of the tube because, hey, it floats.

  16. Not to mention people like shooting at things! These are likely to be in remote areas. People hunt in remote areas. A handgun might not reach 2000 feet but a rifle probably could easily (to lazy to do the math). As a civil engineer we build pump stations in remove areas and we have people shoot at fuel tanks and lights at these stations all the time.

    The whole thing im sure is pretty heavy. Even the cable could cause some serious damage if the ballon deflates.

    I dont seeing it being viable with potential lawsuits, the risk vs. reward, and all the logistics. I do however like when people think outside the box. Kudos!

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