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TED2009

Saul Griffith: High-altitude wind energy from kites!

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Views 635,684

In this brief talk, Saul Griffith unveils the invention his new company Makani Power has been working on: giant kite turbines that create surprising amounts of clean, renewable energy.

- Inventor
Inventor Saul Griffith looks for elegant ways to make real things, from low-cost eyeglasses to a kite that tows boats. His latest projects include open-source inventions and elegant new ways to generate power. Full bio

If you're at all like me,
00:22
this is what you do with the sunny summer weekends in San Francisco:
00:23
you build experimental kite-powered hydrofoils
00:26
capable of more than 30 knots.
00:29
And you realize that there is incredible power in the wind,
00:31
and it can do amazing things.
00:34
And one day, a vessel not unlike this
00:36
will probably break the world speed record.
00:38
But kites aren't just toys like this.
00:40
Kites: I'm going to give you a brief history,
00:43
and tell you about the magnificent future
00:45
of every child's favorite plaything.
00:47
So, kites are more than a thousand years old,
00:50
and the Chinese used them for military applications,
00:52
and even for lifting men.
00:55
So they knew at that stage they could carry large weights.
00:56
I'm not sure why there is a hole in this particular man.
00:59
(Laughter)
01:01
In 1827, a fellow called George Pocock
01:03
actually pioneered the use of kites for towing buggies
01:06
in races against horse carriages across the English countryside.
01:09
Then of course, at the dawn of aviation,
01:14
all of the great inventors of the time --
01:16
like Hargreaves, like Langley,
01:18
even Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, who was flying this kite --
01:20
were doing so in the pursuit of aviation.
01:23
Then these two fellows came along,
01:26
and they were flying kites to develop the control systems
01:28
that would ultimately enable powered human flight.
01:31
So this is of course Orville and Wilbur Wright,
01:34
and the Wright Flyer.
01:37
And their experiments with kites led to this
01:39
momentous occasion, where we powered up and took off for the
01:41
first-ever 12-second human flight.
01:44
And that was fantastic for the future of commercial aviation.
01:48
But unfortunately, it relegated kites once again to be considered children's toys.
01:52
That was until the 1970s, where we had the last energy crisis.
01:56
And a fabulous man called Miles Loyd
02:00
who lives on the outskirts of San Francisco,
02:02
wrote this seminal paper that was completely ignored
02:04
in the Journal of Energy
02:07
about how to use basically an airplane on a piece of string
02:08
to generate enormous amounts of electricity.
02:12
The real key observation he made is that
02:15
a free-flying wing can sweep through more sky and generate more power
02:17
in a unit of time than a fixed-wing turbine.
02:21
So turbines grew. And they can now span up to three hundred feet at the hub height,
02:25
but they can't really go a lot higher,
02:29
and more height is where the more wind is, and more power --
02:31
as much as twice as much.
02:34
So cut to now. We still have an energy crisis,
02:36
and now we have a climate crisis as well. You know,
02:39
so humans generate about 12 trillion watts,
02:42
or 12 terawatts, from fossil fuels.
02:45
And Al Gore has spoken to why we need to hit one of these targets,
02:47
and in reality what that means is in the next 30 to 40 years,
02:51
we have to make 10 trillion watts or more of new clean energy somehow.
02:55
Wind is the second-largest renewable resource after solar:
03:01
3600 terawatts, more than enough to supply humanity 200 times over.
03:05
The majority of it is in the higher altitudes, above 300 feet,
03:09
where we don't have a technology as yet to get there.
03:13
So this is the dawn of the new age of kites.
03:17
This is our test site on Maui, flying across the sky.
03:19
I'm now going to show you
03:23
the first autonomous generation of power
03:25
by every child's favorite plaything.
03:28
As you can tell, you need to be a robot to fly this thing for thousands of hours.
03:31
It makes you a little nauseous.
03:35
And here we're actually generating about 10 kilowatts --
03:37
so, enough to power probably five United States households --
03:39
with a kite not much larger than this piano.
03:42
And the real significant thing here
03:45
is we're developing the control systems,
03:47
as did the Wright brothers, that would enable sustained, long-duration flight.
03:49
And it doesn't hurt to do it in a location like this either.
03:54
So this is the equivalent for a kite flier of peeing in the snow --
03:59
that's tracing your name in the sky.
04:02
And this is where we're actually going.
04:04
So we're beyond the 12-second steps.
04:06
And we're working towards megawatt-scale machines
04:08
that fly at 2000 feet and generate tons of clean electricity.
04:10
So you ask, how big are those machines?
04:14
Well, this paper plane would be maybe a -- oop!
04:16
That would be enough to power your cell phone.
04:19
Your Cessna would be 230 killowatts.
04:22
If you'd loan me your Gulfstream, I'll rip its wings off and generate you a megawatt.
04:25
If you give me a 747, I'll make six megawatts,
04:29
which is more than the largest wind turbines today.
04:32
And the Spruce Goose would be a 15-megawatt wing.
04:35
So that is audacious, you say. I agree.
04:38
But audacious is what has happened many times before in history.
04:41
This is a refrigerator factory,
04:44
churning out airplanes for World War II.
04:46
Prior to World War II, they were making 1000 planes a year.
04:49
By 1945, they were making 100,000.
04:52
With this factory and 100,000 planes a year,
04:55
we could make all of America's electricity in about 10 years.
04:57
So really this is a story about the audacious plans of young people
05:01
with these dreams. There are many of us.
05:04
I am lucky enough to work with 30 of them.
05:06
And I think we need to support all of the dreams
05:08
of the kids out there doing these crazy things.
05:10
Thank you.
05:13
(Applause)
05:14

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About the speaker:

Saul Griffith - Inventor
Inventor Saul Griffith looks for elegant ways to make real things, from low-cost eyeglasses to a kite that tows boats. His latest projects include open-source inventions and elegant new ways to generate power.

Why you should listen

Innovator and inventor Saul Griffith has a uniquely open approach to problem solving. Whether he's devising a way to slash the cost of prescription eyeglasses or teaching science through cartoons, Griffith makes things and then shares his ideas with the world.

A proponent of open-source information, he established Instructables , an open website showing how to make an array of incredible objects. He is the co-founder of numerous companies including Squid Labs, Low Cost Eyeglasses, Potenco and Makani Power, where he is President and Chief Scientist. His companies have invented a myriad of new devices and materials, such as a "smart" rope that senses its load, or a machine for making low-cost eyeglass lenses through a process inspired by a water droplet. He is a columnist at Make magazine and co-writes How Toons! He's fascinated with materials that assemble themselves, and with taking advantage of those properties to make things quickly and cheaply.

More profile about the speaker
Saul Griffith | Speaker | TED.com