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Federal Way family designs airborne wind turbine as energy source
The side of one of two blue blimps reads, “Energy Shark” in white letters. The blimps rise, pulling with them a 20 foot, 60 pound wind turbine, 18-year-old Alexander Anderson’s research project of three years.
Tucked inside the rainbow aluminum tubing, an AIR-30 wind turbine turns wind into energy.
“Wind turbines work by creating a pressure drop across the blades that turn the generator,” Anderson said. “Adding an augmenter speeds up the wind and increases the drop in pressure, giving more power.
Anderson’s goal was to provide Americans in low-wind areas with a renewable energy source that didn’t break the bank, he said.
His patent-pending design, called A-PEGASUS, costs about $4,000 and can be assembled in a garage over a weekend.
His research began with a desire to increase efficiency of wind turbines.After his first prototype lived up to his calculations and expectations, he began thinking on how to match cost with efficiency. Support structures for wind turbines can be expensive. A flying turbine would eliminate the expensive support and be even more efficient, as wind speed increases with height, he said.
Tacoma Power and the American Public Power Association partnered with Anderson to help finance a 400-watt, lighter-than-air augmented turbine. The American Public Power Association established its Demonstration of Energy and Efficiency Developments program in 1980. The competitive program funds research initiatives.
Once Anderson got the grant, he needed a public utilities sponsor and the city of Tacoma got on board, said Patrick McCarty, the city of Tacoma’s representative for the project.
McCarty met with Anderson for progress meetings, and also helped connect him with the right people, such as the plant manager at Wild Horse Wind Farm, where the turbine took its test flight, McCarty said.
“[Alexander] is an extraordinarily bright young man,” McCarty said. “It was a pleasure working with Alexander and his team.”
Anderson will now pursue a master’s degree in power systems engineering, “which will come in handy in testing the autopilot and hydrogen systems of A-PEGASUS,” he said.
Future models of his turbine will use hydrogen instead of helium and will come with an electrolysis system, which sends electricity through water to separate the hydrogen and oxygen. Work on these implements began when he paid off his $1,000 helium bill, he said.
Anderson’s design is one of only a few airborne turbines.
“The technology is still in its infancy,” he said.
Construction of airborne turbines is expensive, as are helium and the autopilot systems required to run them.
“The airborne system, using wind augmentation, is a promising alternative energy source in cool areas with low to moderate winds, especially those without connection to an electric grid,” said Mike Hyland, senior vice president of operations and engineering at American Public Power Association.
The association is pleased to support research and innovation through the grant program, he said.
“We congratulate Tacoma Power and Alexander Anderson from Saint Martins University on successful completion of our grant program,” Hyland said.
When he returns to school, Anderson will look into grid connection possibilities. He is also working on a renewable energy generator, for which he is currently filing patent paperwork. The generator will go to the Jikawa province in Papua New Guinea, Anderson said. He and his parents also recently finished building a water harvesting and distribution system for the province.
“Inventing is easy when you keep in mind that a dream or an idea ultimately must serve a higher goal and address a need,” he said.
Anderson’s parents pursued degrees in engineering with their son, starting at Green River Community College when he was 12 years old. The family graduated from Saint Martin’s University in May.
Alexander Anderson works on his airborne wind turbine, which took him three years to build. Contributed photo.