Look­ing to the heav­ens to pro­vide power on the ground

The Ze­phyr pro­ject, a pho­to­voltaic bal­loon de­signed by stu­dents, aims to sup­ply energy to dis­as­ter ar­eas.


In the Iliad, Ze­phyr is a vi­o­lent, stormy wind, while in the Odyssey and more re­cent literature, it is de­picted as gen­tle and light — a warm breeze that melts the snow. In this pro­ject set up by two am­bi­tious young Parisian grad­u­ates, Ze­phyr takes the form of a fly­ing de­vice that comes to the res­cue of those liv­ing with­out elec­tric­ity in dis­as­ter ar­eas.

In emer­gency sit­u­a­tions, the ques­tion of energy sup­ply is of­ten of crit­i­cal im­por­tance. At the mo­ment, elec­tric­ity in refugee camps gen­er­ally comes from heavy, pol­lut­ing gen­er­a­tors that re­quire ex­pen­sive fuel oil. The sup­ply chains for such oil can be bro­ken, mak­ing pro­cure­ment un­pre­dictable.

These prob­lems gave the stu­dents the idea of de­sign­ing a pho­to­voltaic bal­loon inspired by in­flat­able bal­loons, which can gen­er­ate energy any­where - even in dis­as­ter ar­eas where it is not pos­si­ble to in­stall land-based in­fra­struc­ture as a re­sult, for ex­am­ple, of a nat­u­ral catas­tro­phe. The stu­dents, grad­u­ates of Tele­com ParisTech and the Ecole Na­tionale Su­perieure des Arts D’corat­ifs, met while work­ing to­gether from Novem­ber 2013 to March 2014 on ‘en­er­gies of the fu­ture’ at the Lab­o­ra­toire, a fa­cil­ity set up in Paris to bring to­gether engi­neers

and de­sign­ers.

Energy for 50 Peo­ple

The prin­ci­ple is based on a highly mo­bile, low-cost kit made up of a box hous­ing the tech­nol­ogy and a light­weight sail. The land­based hous­ing con­tains an elec­tri­cal trans­former and is less than a cu­bic me­ter in vol­ume, while the sail is 3.8 me­ters in di­am­e­ter and is cov­ered with 15 me­ters squared of light­weight so­lar pan­els. “All you need to do is un­furl the sail and al­low it to in­flate. The bal­loon col­lects so­lar energy and trans­ports it to the ground via a ca­ble, while the bat­ter­ies store sur­plus energy and take over the power sup­ply at night,” ex­plains Cedric Tomissi, one of the two young de­sign­ers be­hind the pro­ject. The elec­trol­yser uses nine liters of wa­ter plus the so­lar energy col­lected, cou­pled with the bat­ter­ies in­side the hous­ing, to pro­duce the gas needed to in­flate Ze­phyr in half a day. Half­way be­tween a bal­loon and a kite, this hy­brid de­vice has a yield of up to 3 kilo­watt hours (kWh), com­pa­ra­ble to that of a tra­di­tional gen­er­a­tor. This is enough to sup­ply light­ing and heat­ing to around fifty peo­ple liv­ing, for ex­am­ple, in a refugee camp or emer­gency hos­pi­tal.

The idea has not gone un­no­ticed. The young en­trepreneurs have al­ready won sev­eral awards, in­clud­ing the 2014 ArtS­cience prize, the 2014 James Dyson Award, first prize at the 2014 Stu­dent Entrepreneurship Day run by the Univer­site Paris-Sa­clay, the 2014 Hu­man­itech Chal­lenge jointly or­gan­ised by the Red Hel­mets Foun­da­tion and Or­ange and EDF’s “Shar­ing energy in the city, 2030” chal­lenge. They were also given the op­por­tu­nity to present their pro­ject at EDF’s stand at the Saint-Eti­enne De­sign Bi­en­nale in March. “It’s a sim­ple, en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly de­vice,” ex­plains Jonathan Bouzy, a pro­ject man­ager at Soft IQ and mem­ber of the Hu­man­itech Chal­lenge panel of judges. “They are ap­ply­ing ex­ist­ing tech­nol­ogy in a brand new way. That’s what “high tech” is all about.”

A tech­ni­cal fea­si­bil­ity study was car­ried out on the bal­loon last Novem­ber in part­ner­ship with EDF, Das­sault Sys­temes, the Red Hel­mets Foun­da­tion and the In­sti­tute of Re­search and De­vel­op­ment on Pho­to­voltaic Energy (IRDEP). The stu­dents worked par­tic­u­larly closely with the IRDEP to im­prove the bal­loon’s pho­to­voltaic tech­nol­ogy. Af­ter one of the engi­neers who set up the pro­ject left the team to pur­sue other pro­fes­sional av­enues, Ze­phyr en­tered into a part­ner­ship with the EI-CESI en­gi­neer­ing school, giv­ing fi­nal-year Master’s de­gree stu­dents the op­por­tu­nity to work on tech­ni­cal as­pects of the pro­ject.

From Stu­dent Pro­ject to Start-up

The next stage is to build an ini­tial pro­to­type, which should be com­pleted in Jan­uary 2017 and will serve as “proof of con­cept.” “We think that we will need 25,000 eu­ros to make it,” ex­plains Julie Dau­tel, a de­signer who is cur­rently study­ing at the SciencesPo Paris re­search univer­sity. Ze­phyr has al­ready re­ceived around ten thou­sand eu­ros from the var­i­ous prizes that it has won and a fundrais­ing cam­paign is planned to run from Septem­ber 2015 to Jan­uary 2016. The team hopes to use this in­vest­ment to take on ad­di­tional staff, par­tic­u­larly engi­neers. The two young en­trepreneurs want to turn this stu­dent pro­ject into a start-up. Ze­phyr is also cur­rently ap­ply ing to join the Sciences-Po Paris in­cu­ba­tor.

The duo is aim­ing to move into an in­dus- trial phase and start selling the bal­loon in 2018. More in­vest­ment (one mil­lion eu­ros) will be re­quired at this later stage. In the long term, the aim is to sell an en­tire range of bal­loons adapted to gen­er­ate energy in dif­fer­ent kinds of sit­u­a­tions, in­clud­ing non­hu­man­i­tar­ian ap­pli­ca­tions. “The bal­loon can be used for homes in re­mote ar­eas where the roof can­not take the weight of tra­di­tional so­lar pan­els, at camp­sites and in no­madic en­camp­ments like those found in Africa and Asia. It can even be used to sup­port com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy,” ex­plains Julie Dau­tel. For now, it will be some time be­fore Ze­phyr is ready to take to the air.


These pho­to­voltaic bal­loons are ca­pa­ble of gen­er­at­ing energy in dis­as­ter ar­eas where it is not pos­si­ble to in­stall land-based in­fra­struc­ture.

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