Internet service by balloon

Technology |  2 min. read

Say you want to check the score of a game – or see what a friend is doing – or work at a coffee shop instead of an office.  No big deal about that.  For most of us, the internet is always there, wherever we might be.

But for BILLIONS of people around the world – mostly in areas outside cities – the internet is something to hear about, not to use.  There are big chunks of the planet where there isn’t any internet service, period.

So could a balloon change that?  We’re about to find out.

Google’s Project Loon is getting ready to launch in Kenya.  That’s “loon” as in “balloon.”  Think of these balloons as cell phone towers, in places where there are no cell phone towers.  You need to start by launching a network of these balloons (each one covering about 50 miles worth of terrain).  Then, when a signal goes up from the ground – it travels from balloon to balloon to balloon – and back to a person with a phone, computer or tablet, who wants to – see what a friend is doing.

Now as you might expect, these balloons are big (they’ve got to carry communications gear, plus batteries and solar panels to power it):  almost 40 feet tall by 50 feet wide.  They operate 12 miles up in the air, where the temperature can go as low as -130°F, and the winds hit 60 miles an hour.  Oh, and these balloons need to stay in the air and work for months at a time.

The secret ingredient?  The Project Loon folks explain it:  “A well-made balloon envelope is critical for allowing a balloon to last around 100 days in the stratosphere.  Loon’s balloon envelopes are made from sheets of polyethylene plastic…”.  (Sheets of plastic, by the way, that are about the thickness of a sandwich bag – but tough enough to survive 12 miles high.)

And the secret to polyethylene is:  the petrochemical “ethylene” (not surprisingly).

A petrochemical is something, ethylene in this case, made from either crude oil or natural gas.  Those big oil and gas molecules are broken apart, or “cracked”, and from that come various petrochemicals, like ethylene.  At this point, ethylene is a gas.  But put that gas back into the lab, and a few chemical reactions later, you have sheets of plastic ready to become a 40-foot tall balloon (or any of the other hundreds of products made of polyethylene).

The upcoming launch in Kenya will be the first big test for Project Loon – but the balloons have already been on the job.  In Puerto Rico, for example, after Hurricane Maria wiped out much of the communications infrastructure, the balloons provided a basic level of internet service (email, texting and web access) for more than 200,000 people.  Also in Peru, after a similar natural disaster.

Someday, there may be a worldwide internet infrastructure on the ground.  Or maybe the internet itself will work in some completely new way.  But meantime, if a network of balloons COULD bring the internet to those billions of people – that would be huge.

A Bloomberg story once described ethylene as “arguably the most important petrochemical on the planet.” And if  Project Loon gets off the ground, literally and metaphorically, millions of people around the world might say yes to that.

By the way, if you want to see what it looks like to get a giant balloon off the ground and on its way to the stratosphere, you can satisfy your curiosity right here: