Technology from the 1600s may provide one key future solution to climate change.
Anumá Aerospace Co-Founder Jamie Little has been fascinated by aviation since she was a child. As climate change became more of a prominent concern, she started to wonder if one could develop aircraft that didn’t emit any polluting gasses. That’s when she stumbled across an almost 400-year-old concept of vacuum lift, initially proposed by the “father of aeronautics” Francesco Lana de Terzi.
The notion of a vacuum airship—that creating a vacuum would make the interior of the airship lighter than air, and thus it would rise—was “proven” to be impossible by 17th century mathematicians. Back then, it was presumed that steel was the strongest material, and that only true spherical bubbles of steel could “pull” enough air to create a 100 percent vacuum, which was thought to be necessary. With these parameters, the idea was proven to absolutely fail.
What Jamie saw was the opposite. Over the past 350 years, of course, there have been major advancements in materials and structural engineering, making Jamie realize that the original idea is actually possible.
So Anumá evolved the equation by utilizing carbon fiber, which is lighter and stronger than steel; a geodesic sphere instead of a true sphere (think of a soccer ball); and a vacuum that doesn’t require 100 percent pull.
The result is Anumá Aerospace’s partial-vacuum lift (PVL) technology, which just received its full patent. Anumá’s PVL tech is designed to produce and control the aerostatic lift of lighter-than-air, carbon-zero aircraft and replace the need for helium or hydrogen in existing aerostat and airship programs, which have their own issues.
In 2021, Jamie brought on Co-Founder and current CEO Diana Little (Jamie and Diana are married) to lift Anumá off the ground to serve the $198 billion aerostat, airship and long-haul-transportation market.
Currently, the dominant lighter-than-air technology relies on helium to lift the vessels. However, helium is an expensive and non-renewable natural resource that humans cannot manufacture. It requires a lot of energy to obtain helium, thus burning carbon in the process. More importantly, once helium leaves its container, it actually leaves the planet forever, making it even more rare and more expensive.
And while helium is well-suited to lifting vessels off the ground, trying to get them to land is another story—another key differentiator for Anumá. Its patented airlift structure is covered in a geodesic membrane and has a solar-electric powered vacuum pump attached, which would not require the hypothesized full pull of 100 percent to lift off. The pump would instead allow the engineer to control as much vacuum pull as they need to achieve flight and then reduce the pull to bring the vessel down, making lift-off and landing much easier.
Part of the awarded patent also includes the concept of regenerative descent, which means that as the structure lets air in (to reduce the vacuum’s pull), it runs that through the system and uses it to charge the battery, a process similar to electric vehicles’ regenerative braking.
This process will allow for zero static lift, allowing for more maneuverability without complicated ballasting because it uses the medium through which it travels—air—to ballast, or self-stabilize.
Diana said Anumá’s tech can dramatically reduce the operational expenses compared to current lighter-than-air vehicles that use helium or hydrogen (which is highly flammable) and also increase the persistence and time that they can stay up in the air.
Currently, most aerostats stay aloft for about two weeks to a month. Anumá’s would potentially be able to stay up for years and only occasionally would have to come down for maintenance. That is key for use cases such as weather balloons, fire monitoring or surveillance.
With Anumá, the combination of lifting through vacuum and using solar power and other energy-producing processes will create a zero—if not negative—carbon footprint, according to Suzanne Miglucci, one of Anumá’s advisors.
“I think that the aerospace industry is one of the most polluting industries out there and I think about air travel and the amount of fossil fuels that airlines burn,” Miglucci said. “What Anumá is doing can revolutionize the way that we look at this industry now.”
And government organizations are starting to see this revolution too.
Anumá announced last week that it has been awarded a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Grant to develop a persistently elevated, gas-free, aerostatic sensor utility system (PEGASUS).
This grant will allow them to build their first aerostat weather balloon prototype that will be able to stay in the air longer than current helium-powered weather balloons. With this product, Anumá intends to own and operate their technology and provide the weather data as a service to outside companies and organizations.
In the longer term, Anumá plans to develop drone airships with persistent electric propulsion, which would provide data for Intelligence/Surveillance/Reconnaissance (ISR) and communications systems. They also plan to develop cargo airships, which Diana said could be the startup’s most impactful innovation given the current industry’s negative impact on climate change. Anumá’s vacuum-lift technology will allow for increased scale and cargo capacity, which would allow their airships to transport heavy cargo to any point on the planet, including on the water.
Jamie said that this aircraft technology has the capacity to replace some of the requirements to build ground-based infrastructure in remote areas. For example, instead of having governments invest huge sums to build roads to rural areas that don’t have reliable market access, Anumá’s airships will have the ability to bring the resources that they need, right at their door.
“We really do want to try to help the world heal and I think that this solution offers the possibility of de-carbonizing a very important transportation sector,” Jamie said. “I see it as a way of leveling the playing field while not only reducing the transportation carbon footprint, but also making it net-negative.”
Said Diana, “I’ll put a number to it: over seven gigatons a year in emissions can be avoided. When I read [Anumá’s] patent, I said this could change everything. The more time we spend on it, the more use cases we find how much impact it can make, which is hugely satisfying.”