TED Conversations

Gilbert Griffith

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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.


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.

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    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!
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        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?

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