60-Second Science

Solar Energy Via Balloons

An array of collecting balloons could be a new way to capture solar energy without using vast tracts of land. Cynthia Graber reports.

Podcast Trascript: One of the problems with large-scale solar power plants is that they require a huge amount of space. To rise above that problem, Israeli researchers recently patented a system of solar-collecting balloons. The helium-filled globes will be covered with thin-film, flexible photovoltaic panels to capture sun’s rays. Designs have been proposed before that include floating or flying solar arrays. But this is a modular system, tethered to the ground through a system of cables. Some cables will deliver helium to the balloons, others will carry the solar energy back to earth. The researchers are testing the arrays on a few sites in Israel.
A benefit of this system is that the arrays won't cover a huge parcel of land. And the system can be easily expanded. Need more power? Hook up another balloon. Of course, there are still challenges, such as reducing the weight of the balloons, dealing with wind, and designing the optimal system for transporting the energy down to the surface. But developers say that thin-film solar technology advances every month. And they hope that breakthroughs will make solar balloons realistic and economically viable in the not-too-distant future.

—Cynthia Graber

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