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.
Imagine, 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,
“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.”