How airships could provide low carbon transport, especially freight (going with the wind)
Zeppelins and dirigible airships might provide a low carbon transport alternative. There is speculation that they could be used to transport air cargo, instead of high carbon aircraft. It is possible they will also be transporting passengers, on short or medium length journeys. British and French companies are working on designs for airships. Hybrid Air Vehicles in Bedford has already completed seven flights of its Airlander 10 prototype, after some mishaps along the way. It is filled with helium. It can theoretically carry ten tonnes of freight or up to 90 passengers. It can take off and land almost anywhere flat-ish with a 600 meter expanse, or indeed on water, without the need for airports or buildings, in convenient locations near towns or cities. It cruises at 130 km/h using the vectored thrust of helicopter technology – hence the “hybrid” – and is an order of magnitude lower carbon. CO2 is even lower, if its engines are electric. “High-carbon air travel risks losing its social licence to operate. A carbon tax is coming … The air-freight industry may not survive en masse unless it cuts emissions drastically.” But is there enough helium available? It would have to fly with the wind, ie. from west to east, using winds like the jetstream.
How airships could provide the future of green transport
The UK is a leader in the airship revival, going head to head with France in an escalating global race
By AMBROSE EVANS-PRITCHARD (Telegraph)
23 August 2020
Hybrid Air Vehicles in Bedford has already completed seven flights of its Airlander 10 prototype
Zeppelins and dirigible airships are with us again after eighty years out of favour – faster and hopefully much safer than in the inter-War era – promising ultra-low carbon air transport for the net-zero age.
It may not be long before we can start eating air-flown vegetables from Peru or blueberries from Kenya without feeling pangs of guilt. Fresh food may reach us in cargo Hindenburgs without the unconscionable CO2 footprint of jet freight.
If all goes well, we will be able to hop virtuously from Liverpool to Belfast in point-to-point travel, or Stockholm to Helsinki, almost in the time it takes for a regular flight from door to door. We can hope to lift off quietly from a field close to London in the early evening, retreat to a couchette after dinner and wake up in Barcelona, Rome or Val d’Isere.
As it happens, Britain is a throbbing centre of the airship revival, going head to head with France for global leadership. It could arguably capture part of the $120bn air freight market and displace a slice of the vastly greater truck haulage business in congested zones or regions with poor infrastructure.
Hybrid Air Vehicles in Bedford has already completed seven flights of its Airlander 10 prototype, after some mishaps along the way and an accident after a mooring line became caught on a power cable. It is an exotic double-humped dolphin made of carbon fibre composites and lifted by helium.
The Airlander 10 carries ten tonnes of freight or up to 90 passengers. It can take off and land almost anywhere flatish with a 600 meter expanse, or indeed on water, without the need for airports or buildings. “We can bring it much closer into cities. It could land on the Thames at Greenwich,” says Rod Sinclair, the company’s chairman.
It cruises at 130 km/h using the vectored thrust of helicopter technology – hence the “hybrid” – but should be safer than a helicopter since it can fly on one of its four engines, uses ten times less fuel, and is an order of magnitude greener. “We’ll always beat them on price,” says Mr Sinclair, an ex-investment banker at Barclays.
The company says the first diesel engines will cut emissions by 75pc. The gains will increase to 90pc after 2025 as electric engines are added, and 100pc once hydrogen fuel cells come of age. “We’ll then dispense with carbon burning altogether,” says chief executive Tom Grundy, a former Airbus and BAE Systems engineer.
It once looked as if airships would never recover from the disasters of the Thirties. For the British, it was the crash of the R101 on its maiden voyage to India in 1930, the consequence of rushing the world’s biggest airship out of the state-owned Royal Air Works on a political timetable. It killed the Air Secretary, Lord Thompson, and ended the dream of an airship nexus to bind the empire together.
For the Americans it was the fate of the USS Akron, a flying aircraft carrier that went down in a thunderstorm off the East Coast, killing 73 crew. For the Germans – and the world – it was the inferno of the Hindenburg in plain view of the newsreel cameras as it was landing in New Jersey in 1937.
Luftschiff Zeppelin had switched to inflammable hydrogen on the Hindenburg because the US then controlled the world market for inert helium, and was hoarding supplies for military use. Static electricity probably caused a spark.
Had Germany continued with its zeppelin programme, the Allies might have lost the Battle of the Atlantic. Hitler would have had a fleet of long range military airships wreaking havoc in mid-ocean beyond the range of allied fighters. He would not have been caught off guard by a rear-flanking maneuver at Stalingrad either.
21st Century aeronautics applied to the airship concept is a different story (we have ways to handle hydrogen), and it is now the fixed-wing jet industry in the dock of public opinion. High-carbon air travel risks losing its social licence to operate. A carbon tax is coming in earnest and will transform the cost equation. The air-freight industry may not survive en masse unless it cuts emissions drastically.
The Airlander was originally developed for use by the US military on intelligence missions in Afghanistan. It has returned with backing from the UK Government and from EU grants. The company is working with Collins Aerospace and the University of Nottingham to develop the electric engines.
The bread and butter business will be logistics and freight, with a niche in green tourism and clean short-haul hops. OceanSky Cruises is planning eco-voyages to the North Pole on the Airlander 10, which floats across the countryside at low enough altitudes to see the features. It is not pressurised, so you can even open the windows.
Cargo costs are expected to come in at $0.50 per tonne/km for the larger model with a payload of 50 tonnes, roughly a third of operating costs for a fixed-wing Lockheed C130.
The open question is whether scale can eventually cut airship costs low enough to eat into trucking, overflying congested roads in Europe, India or China. Industrial cargo could be lifted directly from car manufacturing hubs in Germany to the UK’s hub in the West Midlands. Vestas is exploring use of airships to deliver the unwieldy 80 meter blades for wind turbines. It says roads have “hit the limits”.
“Cargo airships can capture a huge swath of medium-value freight,” says Professor Barry Prentice, an airship enthusiast from the University of Manitoba. The ultimate prize is to snatch a share from slower maritime shipping.
An academic paper from the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis In Austria proposes using the Jet Stream to transport cargo on transcontinental routes without any need for power beyond the initial lift and descent. The cargo ships would float on high winds above 40,000 feet at an average speed of 160 km/h, displacing fleets of container shipping at sea. The study claims that they would cut fuel use by 96pc.
The circular flow would always be from West to East – Shanghai to Los Angeles, New York to London, or Frankfurt to Mumbai – rotating in a perennial circuit. It would take eight days to cross half the world by the northern Jet Stream, and seven days by the southern route, beating maritime shipping on time as well as emissions.
These unmanned super-Hindenburgs controlled by artificial intelligence could be over a mile long, spectral airships passing far overhead in caravans along regulated bands near the troposphere, emitting no sound or CO2.
Hybrid Air Vehicles needs to raise another £120m to get going, with a target of building 40 airships a year and employing 2,000 people in the supply chain, possibly around the hydrogen cluster in Teesside. It is currently crowd-funding from green enthusiasts, often wealthy. “We’ve had a fantastic response,” says Mr Sinclair.
There is competition. The French company Flying Whales has secured $23m of funding from the government of Quebec for helium dirigibles to supply the vast expanses of the Grand Nord. Lockheed Martin is developing its own cargo airship, part hovercraft, part zeppelin.
The UK start-up Varialift Airship had less luck than Hybrid Air in securing help from the UK Government for its aluminum freight ship, so it turned to France instead. “I hoped that England would be the centre of the hub, but they frowned on us when we were looking for sites,” says Alan Handley, the company’s founder and chairman.
The French offered a disused military airfield at Châteaudun, where the first prototype for pilot training is being built. The company aims for full certification by 2023, graduating from standard Pratt & Whitney PT6 engines to hybrid electric for cruising, and finally to solar panels fitted on the shell. “We can generate a lot of electricity at 30,000 feet,” he says.
A Boeing 747 requires at least 70 tonnes of aviation fuel to cross the Atlantic. Mr Handley says his ARH 50 model has the same cargo payload but needs just five tonnes of fuel for the same journey, yet can still reach 300 km/h at high altitude.
“We are not as fast as a Boeing, but a few hours difference doesn’t matter for most freight, and our operating cost reduction is dramatic,” he says. Varialift says the airship costs a quarter as much to make.
As always with a beautiful idea, there are big snags. Will aviation authorities certify airships that move to a different rhythm from established flight paths?
Is there enough helium in the world to sustain a big airship industry? The gas is a finite resource produced from radioactive decay. It is used for MRI scans, semiconductors and superconducting magnets, and lately on a grand scale by the likes of Netflix and Google because it greatly increases the storage capacity of hard drives and cuts power use.
A report by Edison said sources are chronically tight. In the end, however, the peak helium scare is likely to go the way of the peak oil scare ten to fifteen years ago. Demand has a habit of producing its own supply.
With some nurture, there is every chance that net-zero Britain could take the lead in carbon-free transport and create a booming green aviation hub.