Entrepreneur JoeBen Bevirt sold a life science startup (Velocity 11) to Agilent in 2007.  He also commercialized the Gorilla Pod product for photographers.  This deal generated a surplus of capital for this Stanford graduate -- and evidently, a surplus of confidence.  Bevirt "wanted to give back" and "make the world a better place."  He started asking big questions and realized that energy is central to all of our challenges.  He presented at PARC, Palo Alto Research Center, on Thursday night.

Bevirt asked, "What are the mechanisms by which we can generate abundant, clean and cheap energy?"

What was compelling to Bevirt is that immense amounts of wind energy are already present on Earth (as are terrawatts of solar).  But Bevirt was interested in wind. 

"Wind, as you go up into the atmosphere, is an insanely concentrated force of energy," according to Bevirt, who added, "There's plenty of energy -- we don't need to be burning fossil fuels to power our civilization."

Bevirt founded Joby Energy to work on a new type of wind power -- airborne or high-altitude wind power. Other firms like Makani Power, SkyWind Power and KiteGen are also exploring this region of the troposphere and jetstream.

The firm originally wanted to float turbines in the jetstream but the FAA was less than happy about that.  According to the CEO, "The clear message from the FAA is we don't know what to do with this at 35,000 feet."  But, at altitudes of less than 2,000 feet, an airborne wind turbine is just an "obstruction" to the FAA, like a radio tower, and so Joby has lowered its height but not its ambitions.

The company started experimenting and within six months had constructed 30 prototypes.  Some worked, some didn't.  The eventual design became a modular system with a 240-foot wingspan, in either a monoplane or biplane design, with a very complex control system.  And since you need to control the flight of the device as well as to direct the electricity, the wing and turbine is tethered to the ground.  According to Bevirt, the stresses on the tether are "very, very high."  The tether needs to be strong, light and possess as little drag as possible -- a device made out of kevlar or dyneema could be ideal. 

The CEO envisions a multi-megawatt system, and models the system as generating power at less than the price of coal.

Joby expects to hold a press event before the end of the year with their 30-kilowatt platform at their headquarters in Santa Cruz, California.

P.S.: The company was so impressed by the way their turbine flew that they are also working on a personal electric aircraft -- as if airborne wind turbines weren't enough of a challenge.