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August 6, 2019updated 07 Aug 2019 12:34pm

New airship technology could see zeppelins return to our skies

By Ellen Daniel

On May 6 1937, the infamous Hindenburg disaster, in which an airship caught fire after an electrical spark ignited highly flammable hydrogen that had leaked out, claiming the lives of 36 people on board.

The tragedy irreversibly tarnished public confidence in the mode of transportation, and their use in cargo and passenger transport rapidly declined.

However, the reintroduction of airships could play a role in lowering the transport sector’s carbon emissions, according to International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Airships use lifting gas, typically hydrogen or helium, to lift off the ground, and then move forward through the air using propellers. Although the price of helium and the flammability of hydrogen have made them impractical for widespread commercial use, researchers from the IIASA believe that advances in material sciences and weather forecasting could make new airship technology a viable option once more.

Airships could help lower cargo emissions

The transport sector is responsible for around 25% of global CO2 emissions, with cargo ships contributing to 3% of this. With the growing threat of climate change, the need to find new solutions for how goods are transported is more urgent than ever, and surprisingly researchers are looking to the past as well as the future for solutions.

Researchers from IIASA, Brazil, Germany, and Malaysia looked at how an airship-based industry could reduce emissions from cargo transportation by using the jet stream.

The jet stream is an air current located about 10km above the Earth’s surface. As hydrogen is the lightest gas, most of the energy needed to propel airships would come from the jet stream, meaning this method of transportation could play a role in reducing carbon emissions when compared to ships or planes.

Furthermore, researchers believe that transporting goods using the jet stream could take just 16 days in the northern hemisphere and 14 days in the southern hemisphere, considerably less time than using maritime shipping routes.

New airship technology could play a role in hydrogen power

As well as transporting cargo, researchers believe that airships could be a viable way of transporting hydrogen, an energy source that does not contribute to carbon emissions and that researchers believe could “form a fundamental part of a clean and sustainable future”.

Currently, hydrogen is transported as a liquid, but causes problems as it must be cooled to very low temperatures, which consumed 30% of the energy. However, if it was transported via airship, this would forego the need for liquefaction, requiring less energy.

In addition, new airship technology could make the liquification of hydrogen more efficient. The stratosphere (where airships fly) has temperatures of -50°C to -80°C, meaning that less energy would be needed to cool hydrogen down to -253°C; the point at which it turns to a liquid.

To address the risk of transporting a highly flammable gas, researchers suggest that the many of the processes onboard airships could be automated. This would mean that the operation, loading, and unloading of hydrogen airships could take place without the need for crew onboard working in dangerous conditions, reducing the risk of fatalities.

lead author of the study and IIASA post-doctoral fellow Julian Hunt believes that new airship technology will play a role in achieving the goal of switching to renewable energy:

“Airships have been used in the past and provided great services to society. Due to current needs, airships should be reconsidered and returned to the skies. Our paper presents results and arguments in favor of this.

“The development of an airship industry will reduce the costs of fast delivery cargo shipping, particularly in regions far from the coast. The possibility to transport hydrogen without the need to liquefy it would reduce the costs for the development of a sustainable and hydrogen based economy, ultimately increasing the feasibility of a 100% renewable world.”

Read more: Hyundai Nexo, the hydrogen fuel cell car that cleans the air as it drives