Advanced search

Per Lindstrand plans 1km-high inflatable solar energy chimney

The engineer who broke numerous ballooning records with Richard Branson is hoping to develop a 1km-tall inflatable chimney that can capture energy from the sun.

Per Lindstrand, whose work in balloon manufacturing led to his world-first Pacific crossing with the Virgin founder, is leading the British attempt in the race to commercialise a 110-year-old idea for a solar updraft tower.

The Swedish-born aeronaut believes the tower, which uses rising air heated by the sun to drive turbines, could provide an alternative to photovoltaic generation in remote areas of seismic activity where maintenance of power lines or solar panels would be difficult.

Lindstrand became involved with the project after he was approached by the ALMA Observatory in Chile’s Atacama desert, which was looking for a greener alternative to its gas and diesel generators that was more robust than solar panels.

Several other groups are working on commercialising solar updraft technology, the idea for which goes back to the early 20th century, but Lindstrand believes bringing his experience in inflatable structures to the table has advantages over concrete, metal or glass models, particularly in desert locations.

‘The problem in this part of the world is the sand is very fine and would very quickly clog up solar panels so you have a very big cleaning job in a place that has no water,’ he told The Engineer.

‘The advantages with inflatables is you manufacture directly from the cutting table; you don’t have things like a metal structure that has to be jigged up and welded so it’s a lot quicker and easier to make things in fabric and to make changes.’

To generate enough power for the ALMA observatory, the chimney will need to be 1km high with a 7km-radius canopy at its base to heat the air to drives the turbines.

Lindstrand said that a similar-sized concrete chimney would cost around $750m (£466m) but that an inflatable one could be made for as little as $20m (£12m).

This should create a 130MW power station with a capacity factor of 24.7 per cent (much higher than solar PV and on a par with wind turbines), producing 281GWh of electricity a year, according to Patrick Cottam, the Lindstrand Technologies engineer who is designing a 3.5m prototype chimney as part of his PhD, supported by the 1851 Commission.

The challenge in constructing a 1km-tall chimney will be in finding a material strong enough to support the high tension forces at the base, with the right flexibility to withstand movement in the wind and the chemical properties to survive many years of exposure to the sun’s ultra-violet light, said Cottam.

‘A lot of it can be dealt with by good design: for example if you put in steel rings it might help stiffen the structure but they make it much more likely the fabric will tear,’ he told The Engineer.

‘You do need to choose the right materials. I suspect some kind of treatment might be necessary as well. It’s the sort of thing that eventually becomes an economic question.’

Other attempts to commercialise solar updraft technology include a prototype built in Spain in the 1980s that generated power for eight years but eventually succumbed to rust and blew over.

More recently, a 200kW chimney began operating in China in 2010 while Australian firm EnviroMission has put forward proposals for a 200MW tower in Arizona in the US.

Australian firm EnviroMission is planning a solar updraft tower in Arizona.


Readers' comments (19)

  • That's more like it a bit of open minded thinking
    The people that knock this sort of thinking are the same as Frank Whittle had to deal with
    Best of luck with it
    The answer is out there

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • So, what keeps the canopy clean?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Good idea, however you do not have to build such a tall tower if you simply will utilize this new invention from Michaud:


    google that.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Is that radius right? That would almost cover an area the size of Manchester.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Yes, that figure is correct

  • It's an interesting idea. But if I wanted energy in the Atacama desert. wouldn't CSP be a better option?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I hold shares in Enviromission for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is the fact that they are closer to actually building a tower than any of the other participants in updraft technology. Some of the other updraft (and downdraft) ideas are very interesting but EVM is closer the finish line.

    A flexible tower has been put forward already. Vid here

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Another super-chimney link.

    Money is on Enviromission.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Fascinating stuff:
    If the Olympic Industrial Revolution part of the opening ceremony is recalled-loved those inflated chimneys- perhaps there are lessons there. Likewise the Ranque-Hilsch vortex tube -my dissertation in 1963!- is interesting.

    The weaving of fabrics with variable cross section/thickness to accommodate hoop stresses in circular tanks was done in the 80s and
    tri-axial weaving (3 sets of yarns at 60 degrees, not 2 at 90 degrees) was part of the Apollo project.

    Perhaps some merit in revisiting that?

    Mike B

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • and the Australian government knocked back enviromissions technology in favour of green coal... which failed.... shortsighted.. yet the americans are not so short sighted... lets hope the new Australian government is not so short sighted and gives it a go... or support even as one should...

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Good luck Per, go for it!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

View results 10 per page | 20 per page

Have your say


My saved stories (Empty)

You have no saved stories

Save this article