Story at a glance

  • Zeppelins used to ferry passengers across the Atlantic Ocean but were grounded after the Hindenburg disaster in 1937.
  • Now scientists think they deserve a second chance to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from shipping.
  • The authors of a new research paper propose giant, autonomous airships filled with hydrogen that can surf the jet stream to deliver goods and cargo with a fraction of the emissions.

When the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg airship went down in flames in 1937, the zeppelin industry did too. But now some scientists are making a case for a zeppelin revival, NBC News reports.

It may sound like a harebrained scheme, but the idea’s proponents argue that airships could float goods and cargo around the world with a fraction of the carbon dioxide emissions of planes and ocean ships. The new research paper proposes airships 10 times the size of the 800-foot Hindenburg that could surf the jet stream high in the atmosphere to replace large-scale international shipping. 

The jet stream is a powerful ribbon of air that circles the planet from east to west. The paper’s authors estimate that an airship a mile and a half long could catch a ride on this air current and, with more than 20,000 tons of cargo, circumnavigate the globe in 16 days without breaking a sweat in terms of fuel usage. 

Because the jet stream only goes in one direction, the new airborne shipping route would be one way only — an airship departing San Francisco would need to traverse Europe to reach Japan.

New materials like carbon fiber paired with improved weather forecasting could help the zeppelins fly higher and more efficiently, but surprisingly the researchers say these next-generation airships would still use highly flammable hydrogen to stay aloft. The gas is cheaper and more plentiful than helium and is 14 times lighter than air — helium is a little more than 5 times lighter than air, which would limit the weight an airship could carry.

This is a serious sticking point for critics, but the authors of the paper say these new zeppelins could be fully automated, meaning the only losses in a potential crash and burn scenario would be cargo and equipment. Even the loading and unloading could be accomplished with robots.

Another critique is that the engineering problems associated with building an airship the length of five Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other. But the biggest challenge to getting the lofty endeavor off the ground may still be the stigma of the Hindenburg and the gas that caused it to burst into flames. 

Case in point: Hydrogen airships have been against the law in the U.S. since 1922 and were outlawed everywhere else following the Hindenburg disaster.

But some are betting that the regulatory winds could change and that the whole operation could swiftly make financial and environmental sense given the carbon emissions currently associated with shipping. The Canada-based company Buoyant Aircraft Systems International is developing gas bags designed to carry hydrogen, and Moscow-based RosAeroSystems created a chemical additive capable of making hydrogen less flammable. 

“People are afraid of this much more than they should be. In the 40 years before the Hindenburg, all airships basically were filled with hydrogen,” Barry Prentice, president of Buoyant Aircraft Systems International, told NBC News. “Yes, there were accidents, and they burned when they had an accident, and they hit the ground, but so did airplanes.”

Published on Nov 27, 2019