Ben Glass, Altaeros CEO, is the inventor of the Buoyant Airborne Turbine system (BAT), which he developed at MIT as a student in the aerospace engineering department. After his stint at SpaceX, and time spent at MIT’s Gas Turbine Lab, Glass began developing the concept of lifting a wind turbine with an inflatable shell. The tower-less design significantly reduces the time and logistical cost of installation. At the same time it allows the turbine to harness a stronger, more consistent, wind resource that is out of reach of conventional wind turbines. I had the opportunity to talk to him and ask about his invention.
What's your vision for Altaeros?
High altitude winds are one of the strongest, most abundant sources of clean energy. We’re trying to tap this resource to provide low cost, reliable energy to communities and customers in the furthest reaches of the globe. At the same time, we can use the BAT platform to extend internet connectivity and other non-energy services to these communities.
Are there specific projects that inspire you that you wish more people knew about?
I get excited about the potential for technology to make a real impact on important, global challenges. I am particularly interested in any projects that can have a big impact on the energy, sustainability, and food system challenges today.
What would you like to improve in design and engineering that would help you and others to make excellent products?
The tools we have available today are great, but I think every engineering student should go through at least one complete design-build-test cycle. Seeing the big picture through the engineering details is often one of the biggest obstacles.
What are your current challenges?
For an energy product to be useful, it must have excellent reliability and low cost. Right now, we’re spending a lot of effort to ensure that even the early pilot units work reliably and provide steady, high quality power.
How is this technology protected against birds and heavy weather conditions?
The BAT is designed to survive severe winds and operate in heavy precipitation. A secondary conductive path within the electromechanical tether grounds the BAT and protects sensitive electrical equipment from lightning current and static charge. In case of severe storms, the system can autonomously dock and wait out the storm on its ground station where it can continue to produce power. Noise, visual, and environmental impact are minimal due to the nature of the BAT’s altitude and transportability. We worked with an environmental consultancy to look at the impact on birds, and they concluded that birds would naturally avoid the large, inflatable structure, thus minimizing any potential harm to avian life.
What parts and materials are critical for the concept to really work?
A lot of our work is focused on reducing airborne weight, so we use a lot of high strength composites and other lightweight materials. The fabric for the inflatable shell is a laminate material that has great strength and gas permeability characteristics. It is one of the reasons we can build the BAT now and not 20 years ago.
What are your future plans?
Initially we’re focusing on remote and off-grid customers that depend on expensive diesel fueled generators for their electricity. As we scale the product up to larger sizes, the cost of energy will come down and we plan on eventually providing a utility scale solution. This is the greatest opportunity to make a positive impact on the global energy mix.
The Altaeros BAT integrates proven aerospace and wind turbine technology. The BAT lifting platform is adapted from tethered aerostats, which have reliably lifted heavy communications and monitoring equipment high into the air for decades. The Altaeros BAT integrates four main components:
- Shell - A proprietary helium-filled shell made from high performance, industrial fabrics that lifts the turbine up and stabilizes it in the air.
- Turbine - A lightweight conventional three-blade, horizontal axis wind turbine fixed within the shell.
- Tethers – The lightweight, high strength tethers hold the turbine in place in all weather conditions and transmit power to the ground.
- Ground Station - The portable ground station is rapidly deployed from a shipping container and includes an autonomous control system and power conditioning equipment.
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