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Blimps for Freight on the Way!

Helium-powered ships could be carrying freight – and even passengers – in as little as a decade's time.

(An example of the future of airship freight, a carrier by German company CargoLifter)

by Juliette Jowit

Fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers and other foreign luxuries could be part of a global revolution by carrying cargo around the world in airships instead of planes, one of the UK's leading scientists has predicted.

The government's former chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir David King, now director of the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at the University of Oxford, told a conference that massive helium balloons – or blimps – would replace aircraft as a key part of the global trade network as a way of cutting global warming emissions.

Despite languishing in sci-fi B-movies for most of the last 70 years, King said several major air and defense companies, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, were working on designs, and the US defense department had recently made a large grant to help develop the technology.

As a result, the helium-powered ships could be carrying freight – and even passengers – in as little as a decade's time, King told The Guardian.

"There are an awful lot of people we talk to who say this is going to happen," said King. "This is something I believe is going to happen."

King was speaking this week at the World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment in Oxford, which has made transport a major focus of debate about global efforts to cut the greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, which are a major contributor to global warming and climate change. In Europe 22% of greenhouse gases are from transport, compared with 28 from heat and electricity, 21% from industry and construction and 9% each from agriculture and homes, according to the European Environment Agency.

Emerging support for blimps is one of the more colorful developments in a more general trend towards looking beyond the most obvious solutions for reducing pollution as major economies such as the UK struggle to meet pledges to de-carbonize their economies over the next few decades.

Airships would be too slow for some high-speed airfreight, and would not be needed to carry the majority of cargo for which much slower ships are suitable. But with a speed of 125kph (78mph), and much lower fuel costs, plus a carrying capacity potentially many times that of a standard Boeing 747 plane, blimps could in future carry much of current air freight.

A recent report on mobility by the Smith School, for example, quoted an estimate by one developer, UK-owned SkyCat, that it could carry twice the weight of strawberries from Spain to the UK of a standard cargo plane, with a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, much of which is from avoiding the huge fuel burn a jet engine uses to take off.

Other benefits included the possibility that airships would not need to use airports if they were fitted with "lifts" to pick up and land cargo. This in turn would reduce the need for trucking goods to and from transport hubs, and allow less well-connected areas, perhaps in inland Africa, to take part in international trade, said King. For the same reasons the blimps could also be used to reach devastated areas in need of humanitarian aid, he said.

The essential idea of airships – that they are buoyed by being lighter than air – can be traced back to the use of air lanterns in the third century BC. The technology began to come of age when the Frenchmen Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes made the first flight in a balloon in 1783. By the 1920s airships were making regular trips across the Atlantic, and in 1929 a graf zeppelin circumnavigated the planet in just over 21 days.

The craze for blimps came to an abrupt halt after the death of many people when the Hindenburg caught fire in New Jersey, US. However research and development "languished but never halted," said the Smith School report.

This post originally appeared on The Guardian.

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Helium's expensive, and its supply would be a significant overhead (it may not even be scaleable)

Is anyone currently investigating Francesco Lana's approach?
(Surely modern material science can come up with something more capable of holding a vacuum than the thinly beaten copper sheets he was limited to?)

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 30 Jun 10

Helium is a non-renewable resource. This solution seems unsustainable to me.

Posted by: sam on 1 Jul 10

I always assumed these helium filled blimps could not carry that much weight. You really only have a light exterior covered over aluminum frame correct? I could be wrong. But are we talking light freight or heavier things such as say a container filled with cars? My Online Business Strategy

Posted by: Doug Taylor on 1 Jul 10

Tony, Sam,

Helium is a byproduct of natural gas and although you are right, it is expensive, my question how much do we need as compared to conventional aircraft fuel? And how much emission will it cut down on?


I guess that is what they are working on. How to carry a lot of stuff.

If this works, I guess it will help the environment but I'm not sure this is going to be in time to save us.

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Posted by: Dax on 2 Jul 10

I've always assumed that perform these helium-filled airship was not so much weight. You really only a light aluminum frame covered on the outside correct? I could be wrong. But we are talking light freight or heavy things to say as a container filled with cars?

Posted by: Alice havelock on 2 Jul 10

I think it is a Frenchman on the threshold of a revolution in transportation, he has invented a car on compressed air. If we succeed in this, cause a real revolution and help us to come out of economic crisis, because the cost of transport decreased up to 30 percent. Reduce CO2 emissions

Posted by: tesanj on 2 Jul 10

Dax, my assertion that helium is expensive was simply a lead-in to my main point: a soft vacuum (ie 0.1 atm) is readily created and has the same lift as hydrogen (Lana was on this track... in the 17th century!)

Materials for maintaining the envelope against 0.9 atm (~ 90kPa cf the 50 GPa they're seeking for space elevators) should be available and ought not be ruinously expensive(?). My real point is that, your development costs are up-front and, once you've solved the structural issues, it should be plain sailing.

I was just wondering if anyone was seriously pursuing this line of thought these days.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 6 Jul 10

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