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Is the world really better off without hydrogen airships?

  1. Apr 11, 2018 #1
    An airship is any powered, steerable aircraft that it is inflated with a gas that is lighter than air. Hydrogen isn't the only gas usable for airships, but it is the only gas that really makes sense. That is because it has good lift to volume, is relatively inexpensive and is common as dirt. Sure there is the odd helium blimp trying to sell us tires, but that is a novelty more than a useful technology. For all practical purposes the death of hydrogen airships has been the death of any major use of airships at all.

    Once people had great expectations of airships.
    Now when most people think about airships they tend to think of this.
    Basically the dream is dead, and most people feel that it is a good thing. As someone who enjoys questioning common conventions like this I've spent some time thing about weather or not I think it really is a good thing. In the end I'm not sure it is. That is because hydrogen makes for energy efficient air travel. For most aircraft keeping them in the air requires constant energy, but airships don't need that thus making them more efficient. More efficient air travel seems like a really big boon to me.

    Now I'm sure that there are people right now thinking that the danger hydrogen airships posses renders all other arguments for them a moot point, but I have a few counter argument in regards to this.

    1. Things are much different now then when the Hindenburg was a thing. People of the modern world have much better abilities engineer things to be safe, and effective.

    2. People don't need to be exposed to the danger. Vehicles can be automated now, and the airships can be used to transport things other than people. Just think of all that shipping taking place over the oceans. The hydrogen airships could be automated to do that as well. The cost of the hydrogen needed to lift a ton isn't very high, plus there is the added bonus that airships wont need to rely on ports and the ocean can't catch fire if there is an accident. If hydrogen airships prove safe, and people become more accept of them, maybe later automated hydrogen airships could be used inland and/or even to deliver packages direct to peoples houses saving the huge amounts of fuel used by delivery trucks.

    Another thing to consider is the possibility of solar powered airships. There is a great deal of space that on airships that could be covered by solar panels, and hydrogen airships wont have the same issues with weight that traditional aircraft have.

    3. Danger is relative. People often talk about danger of one thing without thinking of the bigger picture. Any major endeavor done by people involves some danger, but to be fair you have to compare that to the costs, and dangers, of the alternatives. For example what is the danger to the world of continue to burn huge amount of fossil fuels?

    At any rate those are my thoughts on the topic at this time. I'd like to read other people's thoughts on the matter.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 11, 2018 #2
    By all means, put your money where your mouth is and start a company to build hydrogen filled air ships. Please let us know how it turns out.
  4. Apr 11, 2018 #3
    Lol, I have no money (not even a $20 right now) so no can do. At any rate thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2018
  5. Apr 11, 2018 #4


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    I suppose a leisurely trip has its advantages. Let's see, air distance between your home town, San Jose, CA, and New York City is 2550 miles.

    Google reports an airline flight time of 5 hours 30 min.

    That tire company airship has a top airspeed of 75mph (Google again). Running at wide open throttle, and due to tail winds, you would spend a bit under 34 hours in the air, plus maybe a few stops for refueling. The return trip would be a few hours longer because of the head wind. That's assuming you can avoid bad weather in both directions. About half of a one week vacation would be spent looking down on the geography, which can be interesting the first few times.

    Still, that is about twice as fast as a car trip with two or three drivers to trade off driving, sleeping and making-the-sandwiches duties.

    If I recall correctly, bringing the newly built airship from the East coast (Florida?) to Long Beach, California was a four or five day trip. (To Long Beach Airport because the upgrading at the home base in Carson, CA was not yet ready.)

  6. Apr 11, 2018 #5
    That sounds like a lot of fun. I wonder if it would be legal. At any rate I'm afraid it's outside my abilities at the moment.
  7. Apr 11, 2018 #6


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    Do you have any numbers to back-up that airships can be more energy or cost efficient than airplanes (or trains?).

    Beyond the cost/fuel efficiency, can you think of any "pros" for airships in practical terms? They seem slow, cumbersome/overly large, weather dependent, space inefficient, inflexible, dangerous, etc. to me.

    I don't think airships went out of favor because of the Hindenburg, I think they went out of favor because airplanes rendered them obsolete.
  8. Apr 11, 2018 #7


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    Dreaming of airships is popular. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airship#Modern_airships
    But in reality, when all things are considered the dreams are usually dropped.

    I would love the idea of crossing the continent at an altitude about 1000 feet AGL, leisurely looking out the windows. I would consider it more entertainment than transportation. But only on warm sunny days when everything is green. Bring in bad weather, winter, thunderstorms, trees without leaves, or the rising stink of fresh manure on the farmlands, and my interest vanishes.
  9. Apr 11, 2018 #8
    I don't know if they would be more cost effective. I guess that would depend a lot on how they where made, and any regulation involved.

    Edit: I've gotten some more information through google so I'd like to change my answer.

    As for energy efficiency....

    So about 5 times more efficient then conventional aircraft. Next is some information comparing different forms of transport.


    Combing the two sources you can get that big ship produce roughly half as much as trains, one-fifth as much as a truck, one-tenth as much as an airship (hypothetically) and nearly a fiftieth of what an airplane would emit to accomplish the same task. It all kind of ruins my argument for airship freight, but what can you do. Perhaps there's room for airship improvement?

    Below is my answer before the edit:
    Next question...

    Edit: Changes made for new ideas.
    In comparison to land transport you wouldn't have to spend as much building or maintaining roads, bridges and tracks.

    For small drone deliveries you wouldn't have to have to transport a big massive vehicle to deliver one little package. There are some problems with Amazon's delivery drone idea involving efficiency which I think maybe could be solved with hydrogen airships. Not likely to be acceptable to people though.

    I like they idea of maybe powering them with solar which would make their bulkiness serve a purpose, but I'm not sure how practical that is.

    At any rate it's not perfect, but it seems like it might have some applications. Maybe worth looking into for someone who has the ability to judge the idea more accurately then me.

    Maybe (edit: probably?) hydrogen airships in the modern age is stupid, maybe they really do deserve their death but I still find it fun to think about. Thanks for your interesting reply.
    Last edited: Apr 12, 2018
  10. Apr 11, 2018 #9
    Good point, I didn't really consider the whether that much. That's a pretty big thorn in the idea side.
  11. Apr 12, 2018 #10
    There is no doubt
  12. Apr 12, 2018 #11

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    And cars.

    It's 12 hours by car and 2 hours by plane between Chicago and DC. An airship looks like it can do this in 11 hours. All the inconvenience of air travel combined with the speed of a car.
  13. Apr 12, 2018 #12
    Given what I read in the following article I think that airships could only be viable for local air transport specifically for tourists, although I am know wondering why it would need to expend helium to land since I would think if it uses electricity to contract it could become heavier than air solely by increasing the density of its tank without intake or outtake, but wouldn't that be very electrically wasteful?

    Edit: I forgot to add the link, here it is https://www.citymetric.com/transpor...died-out-and-how-they-might-make-comeback-722
  14. Apr 12, 2018 #13


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    If you get the chance to visit Elizabeth City, NC, USA you can see the country's only airship factory. The people there are probably well informed in all aspects of airship technology.

  15. Apr 13, 2018 #14


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    When I think of a hydrogen airship the large volume of the flammable gas they have is what most concerns me about their safety. A number of years ago the idea of CNG, not LNG, super tankers became popular and some shipping companies began to study their design, but, to my present knowledge none have been built. My reaction to the idea of those vessels was pretty much the same. It is not flammability of the gas; but, the consequences of an accidental, or intentional, ignition of such a huge volume contained in a tanker or airship in and out of populated areas that is my main concern.

    I can still remember seeing pictures not long after the total devastation of Texas City, TX from the explosion of the cargo ship loaded with ammonia nitrate fertilizer docked at the port there in 1947. According to Wikipedia, is one of the largest non-nuclear explosions on record.
  16. Apr 13, 2018 #15
    I lived about 180 miles away from Texas City, and I can still remember seeing the cloud from the explosion and fire at that time. It was frightening.
  17. Apr 13, 2018 #16
    This thread has been really interesting. After leaning more about it I don't think airships are likely to be able to compete against traditional freight options at their own game, but there may be a few niche applications where they could be useful. This would mostly be places where infrastructure is a problem. After thinking about it some more here is the best application of hydrogen as a lift gas that I could think of.

    Installing giant metal structures where little (if any) in the way of decent infrastructure is present.
    Here is something I found about the installation of wind turbines.


    Rather then building new roads all over the place surely it would be much less costly, and better for the environment, to just float the wind turbines (and equipment) in. At any rate after thinking about it for a few days this is the best use I could come up with. I'm interested in seeing what others think of it.
  18. Apr 13, 2018 #17
    Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't we still transport large amounts of flammable substances around (e.g. oil, coal, ammonia fertilizers of various types, etc.). Are you saying we should stop doing this?
  19. Apr 13, 2018 #18


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    I don't see why a discussion of airships should get bogged down in the hydrogen versus helium issue. Helium is available. Helium is safer. Why consider hydrogen at all?

    The picture in post #16 is a good example of a case where airships might have advantages. Airships can lift heavier cargoes than helicopters. That advantage has value in some circumstances. A heavy lift can afford to wait for a day when weather is good. The commercial question though is if those special cases are frequent enough to make a profit for the owner. I suspect that the reason we don't see airships doing that is exactly that profitability calculation.

    Imagine if a giant airship could have lifted the Costa Concordia wreck. It would have been so much simpler than the actual 12 month $300 million salvage project. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Costa_Concordia_disaster#Salvage) The wreck weighed at least114000 tons; more than 100 times bigger than the payload of the largest airship ever imagined (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airship). It is a fun fantasy. But wise businessmen don't make businesses based on fantasy.
  20. Apr 13, 2018 #19


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  21. Apr 13, 2018 #20


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    Yes, we still transport many variations of potentially dangerous substances; but, we still have accidents in recent years as well, crude transport train derailments such as occurred in Canada, Fertilizer Storage facility explosions in West Texas, Offshore drilling platform blowout and fire in the Gulf, and several more I could list. I am not proposing we stop producing and transporting these substances, but doesn't mean we shouldn't be aware of the risks we are taking and work to minimize the damage that results when there is an accident.

    At the same time, replacing these potentially dangerous substances used for energy production with safer and cleaner methods of producing energy and finding methods of farming that do not require dangerous chemical fertilizers and are polluting our water sources and air isn't a bad idea either.

    I don't know what your background is; but, I spent 40 years in the petroleum industry and have spent time in all types of facilities, offshore production platforms refineries, petrochemical plants, etc. and spent the last 20 years developing and designing high performance ASME Section 8 certified pressure relief valves for just such facilities so I am well aware of the risks involved.
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