The Californian drought continues to worsen, despite the fact that Californians have finally begun to cut down on water use. But if the clouds won’t deliver rain on their own, a group of Russian engineers has designed a blimp that will go up and take water from them.
Fog collection, on its own, isn’t a new idea. Earlier this year, two MIT professors demonstrated that using a new material in the mountains of Chile's fog-choked coastlines could boost the efficiency of older technology by 500%. The Russian project, now asking for money on Indiegogo, aims to do something similar with an added twist: Send a blimp to function as an enormous clothing hanger at 7,000 feet above Earth, suspending giant mesh blankets that collect drinkable rainwater from passing clouds. The system would generate energy, too. When the droplets fall from the mesh down to the ground, they’d pass through a kind of hydroelectric turbine, pumping out cheap and efficient wattage.
I reached out to one of the MIT engineers still tinkering with fog collection technology to see how feasible he thought the AirHES might be. "I think it’s very interesting, and it’s very novel," says professor Gareth McKinley. He does note, however, that a blimp like the AirHES might run into a number of problems.
First, there’s the weight of the mesh. "You’re hanging this huge mesh that’s collecting water at the bottom of a balloon," McKinley says. "The weight might be enough to tear the mesh up." Then there’s the fact that unlike most fog collection systems, which are nailed to the ground, the AirHES system would be suspended, and could blow back and forth with strong coastal winds.
The AirHES team, led by engineer Andrew Kazantzev, estimates that the technology would process four liters of water per 11 square feet of mesh per hour, which McKinley judges as doable. But an 80% rate of efficiency for the turbine system is pretty generous, he says. Plus, there’s the simple problem of cloud availability. To get the right kind of wind speed, and the right kind of cloud density, you’d likely need to select some choice coastlines, maybe near the equator.
That’s not to say that something like the AirHES could never exist. But fog collection could very well play a key role in a larger water collection and energy-generation strategy, even if a blimp isn’t part of the equation.