TED Conversations

Gilbert Griffith

This conversation is closed. Start a new conversation
or join one »

Let us re-visit the idea of airship (lighter than air) transport. The scale of fast and dirty jet transport is unsustainable

The idea of using large lighter than air dirigibles was thrown
out thanks mainly to bad publicity from one crash. The Hindenberg flew safely until it's spectacular crash in 1937 scared the world into abandoning the whole idea of airships.
I think this was a big mistake and has left the cheapest and most efficient lifting gas, Hydrogen, with a undeserved bad reputation.

With today's technology and materials it would be relatively easy to build a modern airship using hydrogen as the main lifting gas with extreme safety even by today's standards.

My ideas for design include the following features and their benefits.

1. Solar panels cover the top half of the airship and provide power to run motors for propulsion, power to crack water to supply the hydrogen and oxygen for other uses or for passengers and crew to aid breathing at altitude.
Advantages; free fuel, excess oxygen returned to atmosphere.

2. A rain collection gutter around the equator of the airship to collect water which is then used for ballast, electrolysis, and passenger/crew needs.
Advantages; no resupply of consumables except food and luxuries.

3. The hydrogen compartments are sealed inside slightly larger compartments that are filled with helium, nitrogen or carbon dioxide.
Advantages; Less possibility of igniting the hydrogen. The ratio of hydrogen to the inert gas can be altered by compressing or releasing one or both to allow buoyancy adjustment (amount of lift, and change of pressure altitude).

4. Airships can be used for many other purposes than passenger carrying. They can lift large weights and deposit them in remote locations that only helicopters can get to.

5. There may even be no need to land (especially in bad weather) if passengers and supplies are ferried to the airship by helicopter which could land on top of the airship to unload.

+1
Share:

Closing Statement from Gilbert Griffith

I am disappointed.
Especially with the number of criticisms based on subjects I was not specifically addressing.
For instance Vincent DeVillier safety (as do others) of a highly explosive gas, hydrogen, ignoring the highly inflammable nature of jet fuel used today.
Similarly, speed was not a significant part of my proposal.
Also, many people referred to the past performance of airships as an obstacle to their re-introduction. Perhaps forgetting the early years of aviation, the mistakes made, and many lives lost.
Some contributors suggested other forms of transport as a subject, I invite them to start their own discussions, I too would like to see trains powered by solar and more of them than present rail lines can carry, ie. more rail lines everywhere.
The thrust of my ideas were for sustainable transport and delivery.
I predict that in not so many years hydrocarbon fuels will run out or become hideously expensive.
Twenty years ago I was advising friends to "get out of the car manufacturing industry". It is failing here in Australia and already the roads are often clogged, and people suffering. I live in country Victoria for the fresh air and find Melbourne smog discomforting after a few days there. Drivers using mobile phones are a deadly menace!
No matter what form transport of the future takes, people are going to die from it, accidentally or due to the ineptness of drunks, the drugged or ignorant will continue to support the road toll and air crashes. So there is no reason to discard the idea of airships because of past accidents that were sensationalized.
The main problem I can see involves money. The start up involves so much that lawyers and crooks can stop a project in it's tracks. Others whom I call "bleeding hearts" will shout out that the money could be used to help the poor and starving, and to save lives. Don't get me started! All they have done is to create bigger problems.

progress indicator
  • thumb
    Jun 18 2013: It's slow. Transportation has to keep up with the increasing speed of connections in our current world.
  • thumb
    Jul 1 2013: Gilbert,

    More on safety needs to be addressed here. People are at the mercy of a highly explosive gas which is relied on it's ability to lift exempting the idea of the weight of a helicopter pad on top and surrounded by solar panels (electricity attached to explosive gas).

    How can the technology of today compete with jet vs. airship in relation to airspeed?

    I do not believe we are advanced enough to be able to predict the weather 80% year round. A fixed wing or rotor wing is faster than the weather, I'm unsure if an airship is.
  • Jun 30 2013: Surely you are aware that this idea, which sounds good at first, was given a thorough trial starting from before WW1 until the 1930s It seemed like an ideal evolution for naval officers who became aware that air power trumps sea power.
    There does not appear to be any answer to the problem that , being "Lighter than Air" must inevitably mean that your craft can not only be bounced around by high winds, but can be totally demolished by even rather mild storms.
    • thumb
      Jul 1 2013: Of course. But there is a lot more knowledge about weather, and ways to observe it these days.
      Pilot training is a lot more advanced than 1930's naval training.
      Storms can be avoided and without the need to re-fuel even landings can be avoided.
      Passengers can be on or offloaded by helicopter.
      In the 1920's and 30's airships traveled the world as safely as do today's aircraft.

      The main problems today are naysayers and bean counters.
  • thumb
    Jun 27 2013: We're way off thread but it's interesting.
    Looking at old rail trails I have seen plenty of new growth after only a few years. But these days they are paving over again and making them into bicycle and walking tracks.
    Loggers around here (I am in a small town 300km north of Melbourne) used to be done by clear felling. Twenty to thirty years later you can hardly tell the loggers had been there.
    Back to airships, it looks like the Americans are concerned about the supply of helium. Another good reason to design for hydrogen as the lifting gas.
    Yes lifting high voltage transmission towers from the factory to the site would save a lot of labor and other costs. As would transporting whole houses, hospitals and other buildings. Assembling a house in a factory makes sense compared with the way it's done at the moment.
  • Jun 27 2013: They spoke in the article of a 200 ton airship. And unless they completely scrapped the program for Airships,
    it was a very large order. It makes flawless sense. Transit to sites circumnavigates populated areas, and temporary infrastructure needs are minimal. YouTube has numerous videos of the perils of hydraulic or lattice cranes.
    Regarding rail, this isn't an option unless the track or siding currently exists.
    When we gave up our railroad siding in the late 1980's, the environmental consulting engineer on the project
    said it would NEVER be possible to recover the right-of-way to replace the tracks. Regardless of our needs
    the 1950's era creosote-saturated timbers had leached into the soil (by design, an effective weed killer).
    The areas required an extensive restoration. Your proposal gets better traction when the future fuel-of-choice will be
    LNG. A heavy-duty hydraulic crane gets about 3 gallons TO THE MILE.
    Once off-road, the crane is helpless if it rains.
    Press-on and check out the articles in ENR (A McGraw-Hill pub).
  • Jun 26 2013: Gilbert, I did find the article on Helium-filled Airships. I was off be a few years! Time to retire again!!
    Engineering News and Record, in 2008. Just type "airship" in the Search Bar.
    It was Boeing and a venture called "Airship Partners". There are photos of a helium-filled ship moving an entire
    high-voltage transmission support structure into place. Fully assembled!
    And the beauty of that is in the safety. The tower was probably assembled in the controlled conditions of a factory as opposed to the typical multi-crane assembly at the job site. They need a big road for all those cranes!
    Just watch a video on YouTube of a typical assembly of a wind farm. The cranes are 250-300 footers.
    And having rented those for jobs, a hydraulic crane with a 250 LF boom was between $25,000.00 to $28,000.00 per day.
    Paved roads are a must, no steep hills and a VERY WIDE turn radius.
  • thumb
    Jun 22 2013: Thanks Bill for you ideas.
    Bean counters and nay-sayers are in the democratic majority these days.
    Maybe this is why so many projects never get off the ground!
    There may be statistics for helicopter and plane crashes, but there are almost none for lighter than air ships and none for modern designed ones.

    Look at it another way.
    A helicopter heavy lifter will cause a lot of damage if it does crash. A passenger jet can cause even more.
    A lighter than air vehicle should cause very little as it falls very slowly. Even in the event of multiple engine failures it won't fall at all. In the event of catastrophic fire, hydrogen burns quickly and upward, jet fuel splatters over everything.

    On a lighter note (!) people love to watch air crashes, and disasters of most kinds. A video of a large airship crash doesn't exist yet as far as I know.

    No amount of built-in safety is going to stop disasters. It is only the perceived fear of them that prevent so many projects. If the fear was real, no-one would drive a car, let alone fly, for fear of the danger.

    I don't recall my mentioning pressurization of gases in the way you describe. I am familiar with the gas laws. If you compress some of your lifting gas into cylinders, allowing your co2 or nitrogen to take it's place, it will reduce the lift allowing descent. So the way to control lift involves using different volumes of both gases without throwing them out. Water ballast would also be used for more radical ballasting requirements and for trim.

    Again I would like to stress that the idea is for a sustainable form of transport. Once you build it the running costs only involve maintenance and crew costs. They possibly would never need to land at all.
    • Jun 26 2013: Thank YOU for your comment. As a note of our common manner of thinking, TED exists precisely for people like us! This is a fact. My evidence is a rewarding career which was (very often) inspired by the circle of people who would object to any proposed alternative methods. I don't mean this as self-aggrandizement. It is simply a willingness to try a different method. I was never more "inspired" to continue an alternative design or bid a project with an in-house-created-solution as when the idea was just slammed in pre-bid discussion with the continuous "you can't do that" or "if that could work, someone would have already done it" or (the best one) of all, "let's just stick with the way this has been done for decades, we are a contractor, not a design firm"! Ouch!
      "and by the way, remember, we don't have design insurance" :(( Push ahead.
      And, by the way, just gather the strength to call an insurance broker yourself. They give you a quote to include with your bid. That's called progress.
      Quite often, the conversation about "design insurance cost" was followed-up with the comment: "have you ever checked into a Patent for that?"
      Thanks also for the info on gas laws. As I said, I should have paid better attention in high school!
      • thumb
        Jun 26 2013: I have to laugh when it comes to insurance. I have never heard of design insurance! They are always thinking up new "products" to sell, that you really need. Every year we get an offer from our accountant for "tax audit insurance" saying how much it could cost if we were audited. It is a great scare tactic. How long will it be before you can buy insurance for your insurance?
        It's not so much a lawyer problem, but the judges who are unrealistic, or even corrupt.

        So for any project you're going to need design insurance (for how many years?), builder's insurance (for dodgy building practices), accident insurance for the builders, accident insurance for the finished product, and public liability insurance.

        Nothing is ever going to get done.
    • Jun 30 2013: Gilbert: You mean you have not seen the film clips of the "Hindenberg", around 1938?
  • Jun 22 2013: Hi Gilbert- I worked on a project for Boeing in Saint Louis where 20+ roof-top units were put in place with a combination of extremely large lattice cranes and a dual-rotor heavy-lift helicopter. If memory serves me, the heli was flown-in from Oregon, where it was used in the logging industry. 1,000 miles???
    The 20+ units were approx. 16LF x 38LF. Air-conditioning units for a building 1,100LF x 650LF x 40LF tall.
    A key point in your proposed idea would be the lift-capacity vs vehicle size vs pressurization & safety factors IF/WHEN another failure were to occur. This is a mathematical/actuarial formula of job frequency vs real/projected loss.
    I am not familiar with the properties of gases (I am a roofing estimator/contractor). I believe you stated that pressurization/compression adds lift? My initial thought (prior to your statement) was that it does not, otherwise
    (I reasoned) certain gas cylinder-bottles might fly! However, I can foresee a pressurization-to-volume-to-cylinder weight ratio is the answer to this. As is the fact that I might have paid better attention during high school physics class!
    However, the issue of safety in populated areas, utilization above multi-million dollar structures, etc., is a necessary good. And those regulations are usually built-upon the incidence(s) of past failures, injuries/deaths and economic losses.
    Areas below heli-lifts or crane-lifts must be vacated to comply with safety codes. For example: 3+ floors (below lifts) on a
    multi-floor high-rise and everyone within a certain radius in a single-story structure. I recall seeing a detailed story about heavy-lift "blimps" in Engineering News & Record (ENR) during the same era as the project (2000-2003). See also: Alberici Construction, Saint Louis (great company) or Boeing, Bldg. #101 HighBay/LowBay.
    Please don't misinterpret my comments. I have great respect for innovative processes/solutions.
    Human error IS a certainty. Our firm specialized in solutions AND attention to detail!
  • thumb
    Jun 20 2013: Air transportation is and will be, at least for a while a very expensive undertaking. In my view, trains are the most viable method of transportation for the future.
    • Jun 20 2013: I think so, too. Especially when technology decreases the cost for very long vacuum tubes. This allows trains to move through a vaccum and decreases air fricton so that trains can accelerate faster than airplanes without the enourmos amount of fuel.
    • thumb
      Jun 22 2013: Maybe you should start a discussion on transportation by train. Like how are you going to get from China to South America by train. How about a solar powered train?
      This discussion is about sustainable air transport and payload delivery only where other forms won't work at all and for when the fuel runs out.
  • thumb
    Jun 19 2013: The idea is not new, but many obstacles are there.
    http://www.cargolifter.de/clscandal+M52087573ab0.html
  • Jun 18 2013: You might want to try a google search like this:

    lighter-than-air craft +vacuum

    The wikipedia article says that it was first proposed in 1670. With modern materials this just might be feasible, but it would take some very good engineering, and those materials are expensive..
  • Jun 18 2013: There are still many uses for airships But look at the advantages of trains etc. to planes and airships.
  • thumb
    Jun 18 2013: Thought just came to me and I'm just going to throw it in here and see what happens.

    Couldn't you "fill" a zeppelin with vacuum? It weighs less then hydrogen and doesn't explode. Maybe the structure would become too heavy because of the internal skeleton that it would need to not collapse? But what of a partial vacuum that does not strain the construction too much?

    I don't know, just testing an idea.
  • thumb
    Jun 18 2013: Thanks Jimmy, interesting idea to tether it and use props as generators.

    But I want something that will lift many tonnes, it should never need to "park" as it will be in continuous use in the same way airplanes and ships are now.
    But if you wanted to land it and have it ride out a storm on the ground it could be saucer shaped with a flat bottom that could be laid flat on the ground and tied down.
    I was hoping my design wouldn't have to land at all.
  • thumb
    Jun 18 2013: True, but not sustainable. Tourists don't need speed. Some airports can't keep up with the speed of flights as is.
    Why is speed so important? Not really relevant to the idea. I am more interested in what happens when we run out of jet fuel.
    Politicians don't need to waste money traveling, the can use internet conferencing, as can most business travelers.
    Even soldiers can kill remotely from home now.
  • Jun 17 2013: I'd like to see a hybrid air ship with power but done for individuals or two-seaters. Not keen on hydrogen though.
    • thumb
      Jun 17 2013: There is a minimum size of about 40 meters that would require a lot of garages or hangars.
      I'd like a 2 seater BD10 jet, but let's be more realistic about finding a sustainable means of long distance transport.

      In my opinion hydrogen is safer to handle than petrol, also many cars here run on LPG (liquid petroleum gas) which is also highly inflammable. The main point is hydrogen is virtually free, Helium is expensive.
      • Jun 18 2013: Hydrogen is fine IN A CAN under pressure. It's a lot more worrisome in a motorized balloon where there is static.
        • thumb
          Jun 21 2013: Everything can be worrisome. A bad pilot in a plane, bad weather, jet fuel, speed.
          Depends on how worrisome a person is whether they even fly or not.
          There were a few dozen deaths from airship accidents that could have been avoided with today's knowledge. But how many more from regular passenger flights? We have become used to those.
      • thumb
        Jun 20 2013: Everyone who thinks hydrogen would remain "virtually free" if it became the primary fuel for mass, long-distance air travel raise your hand.
        • thumb
          Jun 21 2013: Hardly. But using solar power to crack water and compress hydrogen (or oxygen) is virtually free. And it is then sustainable because when you burn the hydrogen you get water back.
  • Comment deleted

    • thumb
      Jun 17 2013: The idea was to replace jet passenger transport with something sustainable, not compete with ships carting containers. Not that ships couldn't use some attention to sustainable power sources like wind and sunlight, instead of maximum profit over the short term.

      The idea of using zeppelins to deliver whole power stations to otherwise unreachable locations is one scenario. Consider even delivering complete factory built houses on site, just connect the utilities and it's ready.
      I'm sure there are many ideas for airship jobs that couldn't be done any other way.