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Floating ultralight craft could deliver worldwide internet

Miles Beaux

Miles Beaux

SANTA FE, N.M. — More than half the people on Earth cannot access the internet. According to a Facebook study, bringing internet to all could raise the world’s gross domestic product by $2.2 trillion, increase the GDP growth rate by 72 percent, and create more than 140 million new jobs worldwide.

In remote locations, however, there’s no easy way to bring internet to everyone. But what if we had WiFi hotspots floating in the sky in even the most far-flung locations? It would improve the lives of millions of people.

That solution just might come from a new technology being developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Researchers at the lab are closer than ever to creating an “air-buoyant solid” – a material that floats without helium gas, hot air, or some other buoyant filler – and with it the hope of building lighter-than-air craft that could deliver internet access to currently unserved, remote parts of the world.

The concept for the craft is analogous to an aircraft carrier: 100,000 tons of steel dropped into the ocean will sink immediately, but 100,000 tons of steel shaped into a boat will float. The shape must be just right, and the overall density, including the space enclosed by that shape, must be less than that of water. The steel ship floats because the weight of the water that it displaces, or pushes away, is greater than the weight of the ship. Those are the conditions that define buoyancy.

Materials scientist Miles Beaux, right, looks through the viewport of an ultra-high-vacuum chamber while Neliza Len Brito sits at the control computer

Materials scientist Miles Beaux, right, looks through the viewport of an ultra-high-vacuum chamber while Neliza Len Brito sits at the control computer. Beaux is researching lighter-than-air solids that could be used to build floating craft bringing internet access to remote parts of the globe.

When it comes to air-buoyant solids, the laboratory’s idea is to fashion an aerogel – a low-density, ultralight solid derived from a gel – into a hollow sphere, which is the optimal shape for buoyancy. Then a penny-sized pump would remove the air from the sphere, creating a vacuum. The structure would float like a helium balloon.

The trick is to pull the air out of the sphere while preventing air pressure from the surrounding atmosphere from crushing it. A height approximately 36,000 feet above sea level, where air pressure is low, offers minimal stress on the sphere and thus provides the optimal location to operate this floating internet on-ramp. And because that altitude is also a reasonable distance to transmit a wireless internet signal to Earth, a floating craft made from air-buoyant solids and equipped with a transmitter could bring internet access to people anywhere in the world.

Currently, organizations such as Project Loon use helium balloons to do much the same thing. But helium balloons don’t last forever – after six months at most, the helium leaks out. Not to mention, helium is expensive, or at least more expensive than nothing, which is what’s inside the air-buoyant-solid spheres. Nothing is also lighter, easier to transport, and eternal – it never runs out.

The lab’s research into air-buoyant solids comes at a good time, as interest in commercial ballooning applications expands into new business sectors. Amazon, for example, recently submitted a patent for floating warehouses from which drone deliveries could be made. And the laboratory, in support of its national security mission, is looking into developing balloons for monitoring and remote sensing related to nuclear nonproliferation and treaty verification.

The Los Alamos air-buoyant solids project received $25,000 from the laboratory’s Institute for Material Science to fund this research, and the lab has filed a provisional patent for the air-buoyant solids technology. With help from an industrial partner that can manufacture the parts to construct a proof-of-concept prototype, the idea just might get the idea off the ground – literally.

Miles Beaux is a scientist in the Engineered Materials Group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Beaux earned a PhD in physics from the University of Idaho, conducts actinide research using scanning probe microscopy, and holds two patents.


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