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Researchers design wind turbine kites to fly at 30,000 feet

Look! It's a bird, it's a plane... it's a high-altitude wind turbine! Jets would have to fly around the energy generators

July 2, 2009 12:47 PM ET

Computerworld - If you want to produce a lot of energy using wind power, it only makes sense to go where the winds are the strongest.

And that's what a group of researchers at Stanford University are trying to do.

The researchers are working on designs for high-altitude wind turbine kites that fly so high that airliners would have to fly around them, according to Stanford. Flying an expected 30,000 feet above the Earth, the tethered kites would be able to reach powerful jet streams that can flow 10 times faster than winds closer to the ground.

The turbines' spinning rotors would capture the wind's power and convert it into electricity, which would then be sent down a wire to a distribution grid on the ground.

"If you tapped into 1% of the power in high-altitude winds, that would be enough to continuously power all civilization," said Ken Caldeira, an associate professor at Stanford and a researcher at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, in a statement. He added that to generate the same amount of power, solar cells on the ground would have to cover roughly 100 times more area than a high-altitude wind turbine.

Stanford's design efforts are the latest in a series of alternative energy research projects.

Late last year, scientists at MIT announced that they are working to boost the output and efficiency of solar cells while lowering the cost of solar power.

The team of MIT physicists and engineers said they have been able to boost the output of solar cells by as much as 50% by changing the makeup of the silicon films on the cells. The research team said the advancement could dramatically reduce the cost of using solar power because it slashes the amount of pricey high-quality silicon needed to 1% of the usual amount.

A few months before that announcement, another team of MIT researchers reported that they had made an energy storage breakthrough that could transform solar power from an alternative energy source to a mainstream source. By figuring out a way to more efficiently harness solar energy, the scientists said they've made a "giant leap" toward generating clean, carbon-free energy on a massive scale.

For Stanford's wind project, researchers calculated that winds at altitudes near 32,000 feet above the Earth's surface have the greatest power density, and that corresponds to how much wind energy would flow through the turbines.

According to Stanford, scientists found that the highest wind densities are found over Japan, eastern China, the eastern coast of the U.S., southern Australia and northeastern Africa.

Wind turbine kites are not in use yet.

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