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This Sustainable Blast from the Past Could Make Cargo Ships Obsolete

Scientists are reaching more than 80 years into the past to reinvigorate technology that could soon reshape the future of transcontinental shipping.

The airship or “zeppelin” for the German-made craft, perhaps best known for the infamous Hindenburg crash that killed 36 people in Lakehurst, N.J. in 1937, is getting a second look from researchers investigating a solution to the environmental ills of freightliners routinely used to move massive quantities of cargo from point of production to point of consumption.

Also interchangeably called dirigibles, airships are lighter-than-air gas-powered steerable craft. Icons like the Goodyear blimp are semi-rigid airships that deflate without gas inside; an internal rigid structure gives the zeppelin its elongated cigar shape with or without gas present.

Zeppelins have generally used inexpensive hydrogen gas to remain aloft—though the highly flammable nature of that fuel source contributed to the Jersey disaster that effectively moved the U.S. and the rest of the world to ban hydrogen from use in airships. But today, thanks to advancements in technology, a deeper understanding of climate and smarter tools to monitor weather patterns, researchers think they can make these eco-responsible craft safer than ever and a viable alternative to ocean-going cargo ships.

Last year, the U.N. International Maritime Organization pledged to reduce ocean-based shipping’s greenhouse gas emissions levels by 50 percent relative to figures measured in 2008. And a report issued in 2018 by the International Transport Forum that called for removing most carbon emissions from maritime shipping by 2035, indicates that without any carbon-saving efforts, the industry is expected to emit 1,090 million tons, a 23 percent increase over 2015.

Airships operate with a smaller footprint than their ocean-going counterparts. An international team of scientists from Austria, Brazil, Germany and Malaysia believes airships can safely be built up to 10 times larger than their predecessors and rely on the west-to-east jet stream winds—which average 165 miles per hour—to transport cargo around the world in 14 to 16 days, depending on the hemisphere. By contrast, maritime cargo ships sailing from Shanghai to San Francisco can take anywhere from 15 to 23 days to complete the journey.

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In addition to zeppelins’ more sustainable profile relative to waterborne craft, the researchers argue in a paper published in the journal “Energy Conversion and Management: X” that a 10 times larger airship can carry 1,000 times more weight. When they first emerged in the early 20th century, airships were hamstrung by a range of factors including their lower airspeed relative to airplanes, and the rise of low-cost petroleum-based fuels that propelled traditional jets and planes to the forefront of air travel without the attendant risks of a hydrogen-sparked explosion, the researchers claim.

Today, airships show promise for long-haul cargo transport even as they’ve found niche uses aiding with broadband services and transporting timber from hard-to-reach harvesting sites—and even as a new player in luxury air travel.

Researchers also see new modern, cargo-carting zeppelins as operating fully autonomously so that any malfunctions wouldn’t hazard on-board personnel. And robots, too, would load and unload goods at the points of origin and destination, another nod to efficiency and safety.

The paper investigates wind speeds, pressure levels, seasonal variations and optimal altitudes that would “prevent the airship being blown off its set route” and lays out the drawbacks preventing these craft from going mainstream.

For one, their reliance on the jet stream’s east-moving winds mean optimized travel moves in just one direction. What’s more, pressure levels at the right altitudes for travel mean “airships and conventional planes will have to share the same altitude range of their flight routes if they want to better use the jet stream,” the researchers noted in their paper. “The introduction of airships will then require new regulations to reduce the risks of accidents between planes and airships.”

On top of that, airship makers are hesitant to mention “hydrogen” for fear the word will “scare off investors,” Barry Prentice, president of Buoyant Aircraft Systems International, told NBC. And Eric Lanteigne, a University of Ottawa professor of mechanical engineering, speaking on the proposed size of airships as much as five times longer than the Empire State Building is tall, noted to NBC a “whole bunch of design challenges associated with building something that long.”

But there’s an added bonus, too, according to Julian Hunt, the paper’s lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. An airship’s fuel cell could produce water as a byproduct that could then “rain down” over drought-hit regions.