Google’s project Loon may be our best chance at saving the planet. Free access to humanity’s collective knowledge will do more than anything to assist those in 3rd world countries to help themselves,, and to inform those of us in the 1st world how bad things really are. The irony of Loon may be the “Balloon-powered” part of the “internet for all” slogan.
The balloons used in Loon are inflated with helium, yes the same gas filling in your party balloons, that is truly a depleting planetary resource. Helium cannot be created by any process besides nuclear reactions, in the sun or deep in the earth, and has escape velocity. The helium leaking from your party balloons is literally escaping to outer space and is lost forever. So what if we loose a little bit of helium? The earth’s full of it right? Wrong. In October of 2013, yes right before the government shutdown, the US Congress passed HR 527 The Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 on a totally lopsided vote of 491-3. The lack of partisanship in the vote underscores the severity of the issue. Briefly, the Helium Stewardship Act prevented the complete drawdown of the US strategic helium reserve and averted a catastrophe in many industries that rely on helium (including cryogenics). There’s only a small amount of helium in natural gas wells primarily in the US, Russia, and Libya.
So why is the small amount of helium used for Google’s project Loon loony? First, helium only has 80% of the lifting capacity as hydrogen– meaning hydrogen lifts more. Second, because the helium cannot store energy, it is lifting heavy batteries and a solar cell. Batteries are a terrible way to store energy in weight intensive applications in aerospace. A quick look at a plot of energy density vs. specific energy for various energy storage mechanisms shows that hydrogen has nearly 70 times more energy per weight than batteries! Third, fuel cells have superior cycle longevity compared to batteries and the solar cell can still be utilized to regenerate the hydrogen during the day from the water byproducts. A primary use for hydrogen generators is the fueling of high-altitude balloons.
If Google wants to get serious about Loon, they need to get serious about the “Balloon-powered” part of their slogan and move to hydrogen filled balloons coupled to fuel cells. Our new faculty member in MME, Arda Gozen, specializes in flexible electronics. He and I have plans to revolutionize applications of flexible fuel cells. Let us know if you are interesting in partnering to be a part of the future!