Emissions-free air freight? How about a solar-powered helium airship | RenewEconomy

Emissions-free air freight? How about a solar-powered helium airship

Could a giant airship with helium compressors and solar panels cut emissions in the air freight transport sector? It may sound like an idea from Thunderbirds, but former UK chief scientist says it might work.


ABU DHABI: Clearly, it’s time to get innovative. If the world is to meet the climate change targets agreed in Paris, then its energy system is going to have to be at, or close to, zero emissions within 50 years.

In the electricity sector, that might not be so much a challenge, given the range of technologies available. But in sectors such as air transport, no one yet has come up with an idea that looks like it can address the issue.

Enter, perhaps, a helium-filled airship, powered mostly by solar panels. Sounds crazy? Maybe. But it has one important admirer in Sir David King, the former UK chief scientist and now climate change special representative for the UK conservative government.

King raised the idea during a session on innovation at the International Renewable Energy summit in Abu Dhabi.


He mentioned a company called VariaLift, which is in the stage of raising finance to test its idea of using these air-ships to move large quantities of freight at no extra cost to current methods, and by using mostly renewable fuels, and with a fraction of the emissions of current means.

thunderbidsImagine, says King, an airship that is up to 250m long and up to 150m wide, and the equivalent height of a 12-storey building. The model is illustrated above. It looks like something out of the 1960s animated series The Thunderbirds, and particularly Thunderbirds 2 (see right).

It would be built within an aluminium frame, and contain 12 large helium bags and compressors. That should mean it could lift and transport up to 500 tonnes (King mentioned 1,500 tonnes), simply by releasing the helium, with no energy required for vertical lift, only for horizontal movement and displacement.

“Now, if you want to move crates of tomatoes, say from Spain to the UK, you can use the vast surface of the airship to intersect with the sunlight.” The solar panels will help deliver speeds of up to 300 knots, King says.

Not only that, it could deliver its produce direct to the customer. It will not need airports, and could be tethered above a supermarket, where a crane is used to lower the produce.

(Airships such as the Hindenberg, which crash so spectacularly and burst into flames, were filled with hydrogen. That would be cheaper, but also dangerous. King says helium provides no risk. It is used for children balloons, and the worst impact is to make human voices sound funny when inhaled).

“It is transformational,” King says. It can change buoyancy on a very short timescale with the helium pumps. It can deliver on to the rooftops of supermarkets, it does not need to go to airport.

“I think these things could stay in the air for three years, without landing. It will change the nature of air freight.”

He says the cost will be comparable to a jumbo jet. Like renewable energy technologies, once the initial capital costs are paid, the running costs are quite low.

VariaLift is looking for capital to test its theories. It has three proposed models, a 50 tonne, a 250 tonne and a 500 tonne capacity airship. On its website, it does not mention solar, but says it will burn 80 per cent less fuel than current technologies,

varialift two

“It is a unique craft, allowing remote areas to be connected with no infrastructure and deliver different types of cargo ranging from low density goods to large prefabricated structures of weight 50 to 500 metric tonnes,” its website says.

These include in remote areas, and in the forestry and mining industries. It could be used to transport trucks, large prefabricated structures, wind turbines, low density loads such as perishable agricultural produce, livestock, oil and gas piping, rigs and mineral ore transport.

“The world today requires a method of air transport that can carry heavy loads for long or short distances without large numbers of ground staff and facilities,” it says. (This is the MOST economical air transport means known to man.”




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  1. Tim Forcey 5 years ago
    • Nick Sharp 5 years ago

      This is just daft. As explained in the article Tim points to, there is perhaps less than 3 decades of helium left, and that’s if we stop wasting it on parties, and devise recycling systems. This stuff is essential for MRI etc medical machines, and there is probably no realistic way of creating more than exists on earth. Thing is, it is mainly a by product of processing natural gas, and aren’t we planning to stop doing that (stop burning fossil fuels?).

      I suspect we will need to cut back heavily on air travel, and for what’s left to be powered by energy-rich bio-derived carbon fuels such as DMF:

      England had better grow its own tomatoes. Solar-powered greenhouses.

      • Tim Forcey 5 years ago

        I would have thought, in this day and age, that hydrogen air ships could be made adequately safe. Especially for freight (as a re-start). A lot of safe air-miles were traveled by hydrogen air ships before the Hindenburg disaster.

        What if jet travel had been canned after the first disaster? Hmmm…

        Hydrogen is quite readily available and twice the lifting power of helium. Perhaps they can endeavour to re-prove the concept with helium, and then later advance to hydrogen.

        • DoRightThing 5 years ago

          This is a very good read:

          A helium airship went up in flames a few years before and killed twice as many people!
          Zeppelins had done over a million miles without incident.
          Despite the Hindenburg’s spectacular and public disaster, most people survived.
          Materials and understanding have greatly improved since then, so it could be worth revisiting, especially for cargo.

        • Motorshack 5 years ago

          Actually, according to an article I saw a few years ago, some recent forensic work showed pretty conclusively that it was the paint used on the Hindenburg that caught fire, not the hydrogen. Of course, once the fire started the hydrogen burned as well, but it was not the source of the original ignition.

          Unfortunately, I read this long enough ago that I cannot give a reference. However, it was a reputable magazine – Scientific American, National Geographic, or some such.

          The article also mentioned that most of the people who died were ones who jumped off the aircraft. Most of the people who stayed in the gondola survived, largely unharmed, because the craft actually settled to the ground fairly slowly, and the flames were mostly above the gondola in the gas bags.

          Apparently the real risk for such aircraft was not fire but high winds. With their huge surface area and light weight they had to be very careful about rough weather, and back then they had a lot less weather information than we do today.

          Finally, there is a long history of projects like this, but they never seem to get anywhere economically. Back in the days when I read Popular Science regularly, there was an article of this sort every few years. Clearly such vehicles can be made to fly, but there seem to be some issues – I don’t know what – that keep them from being a commercial success.

          • Phil Gorman 5 years ago

            I remember reading the same or similar article. It may have been in The New Scientist” . Hydrogen is not the bogey it’s made out to be.

          • Chris B 5 years ago

            >Clearly such vehicles can be made to fly, but there seem to be some issues – I don’t know what

            Mostly it’s the economics of sea freight. You can move cargo from China to LA for $40/tonne if you’ve got a month to spare. It would even make sense to go back to 30kt freighters (instead of 15-20kt we use now) before using blimps.

            Anything that can wait three days longer than air freight to move by blimp isn’t perishable, so it can wait the extra 3 weeks on a boat.

          • Motorshack 5 years ago

            Very interesting point. So, if we want to split the difference between 15kt and 30kt, but stay totally emissions-free, perhaps it is time to resurrect the clipper ship. They often made a steady 20kt in the trade winds, and could be made with fully renewable materials.

            Also, these days when they need to maneuver in close quarters, such as canals and harbors, they could simply furl their sails and be towed by a local tugboat powered by a hull-full of electric batteries, or perhaps an engine using bio-fuel, or some hybrid of the two.

          • Chris B 5 years ago

            Once oil hit $100/barrel there were a number of projects (including one by GE) to develop massive computer controlled kites to partially offset the cost of oil, using satellite doppler measurements like you mentioned for course plotting. Then nasty high sulfur bunker fuel fell from $1000 to $140 per tonne and everyone gave up.

            If ships started using combined cycle generation and kites you could increase the speed without a lot more fuel use. But at $20 per barrel oil the economics aren’t there.

      • DoRightThing 5 years ago

        I agree using large quantities for balloons is not a good use of it.
        All helium escapes to space eventually as its tiny single atoms just squeeze through any container, and especially balloons.

      • James 5 years ago

        That’s easy.. Use Hydrogen!

    • Phil Gorman 5 years ago

      Helium wasted in a world economy dedicated to waste.

  2. patb2009 5 years ago

    electric aircraft are likely to make an appearance

  3. Mike Ives 5 years ago

    Check out the global resource of helium Giles. It is getting scarce. Heaps in other solar system bodies etc but is all that practical?

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