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This Floating Solar Balloon Can Power Remote Villages From Above

The Zéphyr could unfurl at the touch of a button and generate enough energy to keep a whole hospital running.

When relief agencies set up refugee camps, they need to bring in power quickly. That normally means diesel generators, which, while reliable, can be expensive to operate.

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One possible alternative: floating blimps covered in solar cells.

The idea comes from Cédric Tomissi and two other French designers, Karen Assaraf and Julie Dautel. The balloon would be stored in a generator-like unit and unfurl at the touch of a button. Tomissi says it could provide power for 50 people or run a whole makeshift hospital.

“We are working on the folding part of the balloon, because we need to find a solution to deploy it easily. We want the balloon to be something automatic, so you inflate it and it deploys itself, and when you deflate it, it folds itself,” he says.

Tomissi’s team first developed the Zéphyr at an art-design center in Paris, Le Laboratoire. The concept has since won several startup awards, including the French leg of the Dyson Award and an energy challenge organized by EDF, the French utility.

It’s just a prototype for now, but Tomissi says EDF and a local nonprofit are helping to develop it. He hopes to have a working version by July 2015.

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The canopy is covered with a thin-film plastic, with power sent back down a cord to the base. There, the electricity is either used immediately, or stored in batteries for night-time purposes.

“It’s designed to be used during the day and night. Because of the batteries, we can store and share for a hospital or to light up the camp for safety,” Tomissi says.

He thinks the Zéphyr will be fine even in “medium strength” wind conditions, though it would need to be taken down in a full-blown gale.

It’s an interesting counterpart to more advanced wind kites, like the Google-owned Makani, though we’ll have to see if the final product actually sees the light of day.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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