The wind energy industry is an infant when compared to ancient behemoths like coal and oil. But it’s growing, and quickly. Since there is a limited (though vastly untapped) amount of land on which to build wind farms, many experts predict that in the future, wind energy will be developed mainly in marine environments.
But building a wind farm, especially at sea, is a big investment. It takes teams of wind experts months of testing and research to determine whether a particular site gets enough wind to warrant a farm, and then figure out how to position the turbines to maximize its energy. For offshore wind projects, this requires the installation of meteorological towers or other measurement systems on maritime platforms, both of which are very expensive. But researchers at the University of Barcelona think they’ve found a way to replace these costly permanent structures with a high-tech cousin of the hot air balloon.
The prototype balloon is three meters long and capable of sending data through a Wi-Fi connection to a monitoring and recording unit located on land. The sensors module also has position and anti-collision lights that allow keeping the balloon suspended in the air permanently. Since ocean winds tend to be much more violent that those we feel on land, the prototype has been designed to withstand winds of up to 93 mph and reach a height of approximately 500 feet by means of a cable that holds 1,322 pounds.
“This system would minimize the environmental impact on the seabed as it does not require any construction at all,” points out Andriy Lyasota, a Russian aeronautical engineer and UB master’s student who is working on the project. However, he acknowledges that “some technological challenges must be solved, for example, we must ensure that it can last up to a year in extreme conditions” before the balloon can actually be used for offshore wind prospecting.