Ben Glass received his S.M. and B.S. from the MIT Aeronautical & Astronautical Engineering Department. He is the inventor of the Altaeros Airborne Wind Turbine (AWT) and has engaged in a number of MIT wind research projects. As a Research Assistant in the Gas Turbine Lab, Ben worked to improve the efficiency of rotating machinery for industrial process applications. Prior experience also includes the design and construction of a solar/electric race car and structural analysis of a commercial rocket propulsion system at Space X. At Altaeros, Glass is responsible for the AWT overall design and fabrication.
Why begin developing a flying wind turbine?
My background is in aerospace engineering. I was working on aerospace repulsion at MIT when I became more and more interested in the clean energy world and its interesting challenges and opportunities. The airborne wind turbine concept joins both. We are essentially developing a flight vehicle that also harnesses wind energy. From the clean energy perspective, high-altitude wind is one of the few resources that can actually scale up to make an impact on a global or societal scale.
What’s the potential for airborne wind turbines?
Obviously, there is still a lot of technical development to be done. But I absolutely think it can be a predominant renewable energy resource. It has the necessary power density and availability, in terms of consistency and geographically, to be one of the top renewable energy resources. I believe we can bring the cost of airborne wind energy down to truly be competitive with the grid. And that’s the only way to make renewable energy have the impact it needs to have to solve any environmental problems.
What role do composite materials play?
We are using typical aerospace composites. Interestingly, what makes this concept possible now and not 20 or 25 years ago are the advances in the fabric materials, which are essentially composite fabrics coming out of competitive sail racing. To make this wind turbine work and be economically viable, the fabric structure has to be very lightweight, very strong and prevent any leaks or diffusion of the helium through the material. To accomplish all those potentially conflicting requirements requires pretty advance materials. The lightweight materials we are using moving forward are composite fabrics with a layer of Mylar or polyester film that is adhered to a carbon scrim or an aeroknit and any other number of typically synthetic high-strength fibers with very specific strength and elongation behavior.