Airloom CEO: Small Wind Turbine Functions Like a Roller Coaster
Airloom Energy's novel wind turbine is much smaller than the size and weight of a traditional turbine, yet the company is aiming toward grid-level energy production. EEPower spoke with Airloom’s CEO to learn how the technology is engineered.
At a time when wind turbines are getting taller and heavier, Airloom Energy has designed a turbine that is small, lightweight, and even portable. The company’s low-profile turbine—also called Airloom—stands just 25 meters high, compared to the average of more than 100 meters.
Airloom wind turbine. Image used courtesy of Airloom Energy
Rather than a rotating blade on a tower, the Airloom turbine consists of vertical blades called wings that revolve on an oval track mounted on posts. The entire device can fit into the back of a semi-trailer.
Yet, CEO Neal Rickner told EEPower that the Wyoming-based startup is thinking big.
"We are building this to be a utility-scale wind generation device," he said. "So just like a conventional wind turbine, it'll be connected to a collection system that'll feed into a substation and go right into the grid."
Rickner said Airloom wants to shake up the wind industry by using proven technology in an innovative design, and it plans to do it by partnering with major energy players.
Is Bigger Always Better?
Conventional wind turbines have increased in size and weight over the past couple of decades. In coming years, wind turbines, particularly those designed for offshore wind, are expected to be massive.
Height of conventional wind turbines. Image used courtesy of the Department of Energy
The logistics and costs of developing a wind farm are also huge. After manufacture, the steel turbine parts must be transported long distances and assembled on-site. These factors limit the places where wind farms can be located. And once installed, it's not easy to scale up.
"For those turbines to have more power output, you have to redesign the machine," Rickner said. "So if you want to turn a 6 MW machine into a 12 MW machine, you have to redesign the system, redesign the blades, the gearbox, the tower—the whole thing."
Scaling up with Airloom, however, is just a matter of adding more posts, Rickner said. The turbine track can be expanded by enlarging the size of the oval by increasing the number of posts, which will generate more wattage. Multiple turbines can also be used together.
Airloom claims the costs of their turbine are also significantly lower. Compared to traditional turbines, the Airloom turbine can be built at one-tenth the cost, and an entire wind farm can be developed at one-quarter the cost. The estimated levelized cost of energy would be one-third of conventional wind technology.
Demonstration of the Airloom wind turbine in operation. Video used courtesy of Airloom
Airloom's Roller Coaster Design
Through technically a vertical-axis wind turbine, the Airloom functions like a roller coaster.
"Instead of a car with people in it, it's a roller coaster that's got a wing that pitches very simply as it goes around the track," Rickner explained. "The rail is like the rail of a roller coaster. And so the wing is just going around that roller coaster track over and over and over again."
Roller coasters weren't the inspiration for the Airloom's innovative design, however. The technology is based on the airborne wind turbine. For several years, Rickner worked at Google and Google X developing airborne turbines, which he described as "kites that go up a thousand feet and fly in circles in the sky."
Airborne wind turbine. Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The founder of Airloom, Robert Lumly, adapted the design for use on the ground. The physics and technology are the same, Rickner said, but logistics and maintenance are much easier when the turbine's on land.
Smaller, Portable Wind Energy
The model turbine at the company's research and development facility in Laramie, Wyoming, consists of a single oval track with blades, or wings as the company calls them, just 10 meters long. However, Ricker said the design can be modified to fit the needs of the space, whether on land or offshore. The wings can be made longer, the posts can be adjusted in height and for uneven terrain, and multiple turbines can be used together.
So, while grid-scale operations are Airloom's main goal, the company also envisions using the turbine when other wind energy is out of the question. The Airloom can be set up in one day and, paired with solar, could serve critical needs such as disaster relief.
Hard-to-reach places could also benefit from Airloom. For example, many mines are remotely located in difficult terrain, so installing the large infrastructure necessary for wind energy hasn't been feasible.
Rickner said he's talking with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) about using the Airloom in military deployments, conditions he knows personally from his 18 years as a pilot for the Marines, including in the Middle East.
Military camps generally use diesel-powered generators. The logistics and cost of supplying diesel could be mitigated by installing an Airloom.
"Wind, solar, and storage, even if it just cuts the need for diesel down by 10 or 20 percent, that's a huge advantage," Rickner said. "That's many fewer logistics trains that the military needs to run."
Airloom's Funding and Future
The Airloom is in its early stages but could be operational in just a few years, Rickner said.
The company has received $4 million in seed money through Bill Gates' Breakthrough Energy Ventures and investments from MCJ Collective, Lowercarbon Capital, and others. Rickner said the DOD has also shown interest.
"We've proven the basic physics, and we've proven that our prototype works," Rickner said. "Our next milestone is a 1 mW pilot that operates reliably and from which we can generate what's called a validated power curve."
The validated power curve involves measuring and documenting how much power the machine can generate.
The company is also developing its supply chain and working out financial and business details, which include discussing a future with top global energy companies like Shell and Exxon.
"If we're going to disrupt this industry, we're not going to do it from the outside, without existing market players," Rickner explained. "We're going to partner with them. We're going to do a pilot and a commercial demo with industry players and bring them along for the journey."