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
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.