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Canadian Company Plans Solar-Powered Heavier-Than-Air Airships

timothy posted about 2 years ago | from the sir-we're-nearly-out-of-buzzwords dept.

Canada 218

savuporo writes "By crossing airships with airplanes, Solar Ship is planning to build a craft that can carry heavy loads long distances with a tiny carbon footprint. Filled with helium, they soak up rays from the sun to provide the energy for forward motion and fulfill its original design challenge – carry 1,000 kilograms (2,205 lbs) of payload 1,000 kilometers (621.4 miles). The craft is heavier than air, and uses a combination of helium filling its interior and its lifting body delta wing shape to stay airborne. Solar Ship shows plans for a range of different size craft for different duties."

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218 comments

A bit short sighted (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808090)

Interesting concept but, considering we're already due to completely run out of helium on earth at current usage/growth rates around 2035 thanks to wide scale usage in things like MRI's, it doesn't really seem like a sustainable design in any real sense of the word unless they have a secret source of helium we don't know about....

Re:A bit short sighted (4, Informative)

backslashdot (95548) | about 2 years ago | (#37808110)

It doesn't use up the helium though .. once it's filled it's full.

Second.. from Wikipedia "In 1996, the U.S. had proven helium reserves, in such gas well complexes, of about 147 billion standard cubic feet (4.2 billion SCM).[80] At rates of use at that time (72 million SCM per year in the U.S.; see pie chart below) this is enough helium for about 58 years of U.S. use, and less than this (perhaps 80% of the time) at world use rates, although factors in saving and processing impact effective reserve numbers. It is estimated that the resource base for yet-unproven helium in natural gas in the U.S. is 31–53 trillion SCM, about 1000 times the proven reserves."

Even if they are wrong by a factor of ten that still gives us a few centuries of helium left .. by which time hopefully we'd be either creating helium via nuclear fusion power plants or able to bring back abundant quantities from Jupiter.

Re:A bit short sighted (2)

Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) | about 2 years ago | (#37808124)

It doesn't use up the helium though .. once it's filled it's full.

Yeah, I kept those party balloons I got at my 15th birthday, I reuse them every year and they're doing great...

Re:A bit short sighted (4, Informative)

robbak (775424) | about 2 years ago | (#37808350)

The interesting thing is that, if they are mylar (or 'foil') balloons, you could do just that. It is the latex, and most plastics like polythene, that leak helium.

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

Arlet (29997) | about 2 years ago | (#37808392)

Mylar party balloons will typically only hold enough helium long enough to float for a couple of days.

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

SuricouRaven (1897204) | about 2 years ago | (#37808440)

Helium is a very fiddley gas. Not only are it's atoms tiny, tiny things, but they don't even form molecules like hydrogen has the decency to. They'll easily seep out through even the most apparently impervious materials - that's why party balloons deflate. The only way to contain it is a thick-skinned container, which would be very heavy.

Re:A bit short sighted (2)

Arlet (29997) | about 2 years ago | (#37808202)

or able to bring back abundant quantities from Jupiter.

As long as we're in fantasy land, why not get it from the Sun ? It's a lot closer.

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

jhoegl (638955) | about 2 years ago | (#37808256)

If it is heavier than air, it aint floatin no-where.

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

Arlet (29997) | about 2 years ago | (#37808272)

The ship is heavier than air, helium isn't. And because of it's small size, helium can escape through the tiniest leaks. Most likely, the airship will require regular helium refills. Once helium is in the atmosphere, it's too hard to purify, and it will also leak into space.

Re:A bit short sighted (4, Funny)

Scarletdown (886459) | about 2 years ago | (#37808332)

But since it is a lot hotter in that direction, all those missions to the sun would have to be done at night.

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

kermidge (2221646) | about 2 years ago | (#37808420)

Interesting thing for them to try. Kinda similar to the airships in Soft Targets by Dean Ing.

Um, last I heard, didn't George Bush decide to sell of the bulk of the US helium stockpile, at below market rates?

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

mosb1000 (710161) | about 2 years ago | (#37808112)

They could fill it with hydrogen.

Re:A bit short sighted (3, Insightful)

Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) | about 2 years ago | (#37808120)

Oh the humanity...

Re:A bit short sighted (2)

Pence128 (1389345) | about 2 years ago | (#37808134)

Depends on whether or not you want to put humans in it. Considering airships are pretty slow and humans are pretty impatient, this would probably be used more for cargo.

Re:A bit short sighted (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808114)

Out of curiosity, slashdot community, is there any material strong enough to hold a vacuum, with a membrane thin enough so that the overall density is less than that of air? Perhaps with some reinforcing (very thin) "bars" to keep it from collapsing? It would mean no need for helium.

Re:A bit short sighted (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808126)

Shoot. Prior art from the 1600s. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuum_airship [wikipedia.org]

Re:A bit short sighted (3, Interesting)

blindseer (891256) | about 2 years ago | (#37808156)

Short answer: no.

Longer answer:
It's very difficult to achieve a vacuum in the first place. If there is even the slightest leak the air will be rushing in with the force of a one atmosphere pressure difference. With a lighter than air gas the pressure difference is quite low and any leak can be handled with a periodic "topping off" to keep out the air. Even if we had the technology to produce a "vacuum ship" it would not likely be cost effective since the lift gained by a pure vacuum is very small compared to that of helium or hydrogen gas.

An envelope that held a vacuum for lift would be under considerable forces. There is the force of holding back the outside air. There is the force of the gondola which carries the cargo. There would be wind, birds, stupid rednecks shooting at it, among other things that would try to punch holes in it or rip it up. It's just not practical.

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

wisty (1335733) | about 2 years ago | (#37808448)

It would be roughly equivalent to a submarine at 10m, right? That said, building the pressure hull of a submarine isn't cheap. Of course, a sub can take 10 or more atms, not just 1.

Re:A bit short sighted (2)

maxwell demon (590494) | about 2 years ago | (#37808552)

More importantly, water has a much higher density than air (10 meters of water give the same pressure as the whole atmosphere!) and therefore gives a much larger lift. Which means much heavier constructions still get sufficient lift to swim.

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

wisty (1335733) | about 2 years ago | (#37808662)

OK, I'll do the engineering then.

10L of air (the inside of a SCUBA tank) weights 12g. A SCUBA tank can hold 400 atm, and weighs about 15kg (note, this is generous). Everything involving pressure tanks scales linearly, so you could have a 10L tank holding 1 atm and weighing 37 grams, displacing 12 grams of air, for a net of -25 grams of lift.

So you need materials about 3 times the strength/weight of good SCUBA gear, preferably 6 times (so you can actually get a noticeable amount of lift). That's assuming there's no challenges in manufacturing much thinner but much lighter tanks. Oh, and that buckling won't be an issue (since we've moved from tension to compression) - that can be solved my making really small tanks, but then you are trying to make the walls very very thin.

You're right - it wouldn't be easy.

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

Arlet (29997) | about 2 years ago | (#37808666)

That said, building the pressure hull of a submarine isn't cheap

And most submarines are too heavy to float in the air.

Re:A bit short sighted (5, Informative)

tbird81 (946205) | about 2 years ago | (#37808186)

I would love to know this. My physics isn't great, but I did a quick Google.

It looks like the consensus is that it is not possible, those materials do not exist.

The other thing is that is would not make much difference than using helium:
Density of air is 1.2 kg/m3 [wolframalpha.com] .
The density of helium is 0.166 kg/m3 [wolframalpha.com] .

If we had a balloon filled with air, and replaced it with helium, the density reduces to 14% [wolframalpha.com] . This means that that much helium could support 86% of the weight of the air. A vacuum's density is 0, so it was possible it would support the weight of 100% of the air it 'displaced'. So a perfect vacuum is only 16% [slashdot.org] better at lifting (in air) than helium is.

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

Pence128 (1389345) | about 2 years ago | (#37808220)

On top of that, a vessel holding (?) a vacuum has to hold back considerable pressure. That's not going to be light. Would make a neat physics demo though, two bottles, one with the air sucked out on a scale.

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

Stoutlimb (143245) | about 2 years ago | (#37808288)

The short answer is no. At one atmosphere of pressure, any structure would either be too heavy or be easily crushed.

An interesting question to the geek community... maybe crunch some numbers... Is a vacuum sphere that only operates at extremely high altitudes and low pressures feasible?

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

Pence128 (1389345) | about 2 years ago | (#37808352)

Hmmm... There's less buoyancy in thinner air so you need to displace more of it meaning a bigger "vacuum sphere"... I don't know the numbers but my intuition tells me this won't work.

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

SuricouRaven (1897204) | about 2 years ago | (#37808456)

How about something like aerogel, only trapping vacuum rather than air? It's be prohibatively difficult to manufacture, if it can be manufactured at all, but could it be done in theory? Need a specialist in materials engineering to determine that.

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

maxwell demon (590494) | about 2 years ago | (#37808564)

You can't trap vacuum because vacuum is not a substance but rather the absence of substance.

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

SuricouRaven (1897204) | about 2 years ago | (#37808618)

You can still trap it. You just need to use a container to keep gas *out* rather than in.

Re:A bit short sighted (1)

Carewolf (581105) | about 2 years ago | (#37808488)

A flying submarine? ;) You know they are design to withstand several atmospheres of pressure.

Just what the world needs... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808092)

...more ways to waste helium.

Re:Just what the world needs... (1)

zoloto (586738) | about 2 years ago | (#37808630)

Yeah the helium crisis. Just like the oil crisis and energy crisis. bullshit, all of it.

Helium? (1)

BradleyUffner (103496) | about 2 years ago | (#37808100)

Aren't we losing Helium at a rapid rate? How much energy will be required to manufacture more Helium? (If that's even possible)

Re:Helium? (1)

Jeremi (14640) | about 2 years ago | (#37808116)

Well, there's always hydrogen as a plentiful alternative... it's not quite clear whether these craft are intended to be manned or unmanned, but if it's the latter, then the safety issues inherent with hydrogen might be less of a problem.

(and I, for one, welcome our new solar-powered FedEx Air robot deliverymen!)

Re:Helium? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808136)

Tell that to people owning green lasers =)

Re:Helium? (1)

tbird81 (946205) | about 2 years ago | (#37808206)

I'm sure we wouldn't want our mail disappearing in a high-pitched 'pop'! And I wouldn't really want to be under the large containers as they crash down to earth.

If this thing is slow, what's wrong with ships over oceans and trucks/trains over land?

Re:Helium? (1)

Pence128 (1389345) | about 2 years ago | (#37808300)

They require a certain kind of high density chemical energy source that we are quickly running out of.

Re:Helium? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808322)

If this thing is slow, what's wrong with ships over oceans and trucks/trains over land?

The whole point, and it looks like you missed it. Except maybe electric trains...

Re:Helium? (2)

Sqr(twg) (2126054) | about 2 years ago | (#37808532)

This is a common misconception. A hydrogen airship that catches fire does not go 'pop'. In fact, the most likely scenario (assuming a properly constructed airship) is a safe emergency landing where everybody walks away unharmed.

The pure oxygen inside an airship cannot burn or explode. It must be mixed with oxygen first. Hence any burning will take place on the outside of a leak. Hydrogen is lighter than air, so a hydrogen flame is mostly vertical. It is also nearly invisible, which also means it does not radiate much heat. Hence it takes a long time for a fire to spread to neighboring segments.

Even the Hindenburg, which had several construction flaws, allowed most of the passengers and crew to get off alive. A modern airship would not be covered in extremely flammable cellulose nitrate.

Roads (2)

Alan R Light (1277886) | about 2 years ago | (#37808542)

Note that this is a Canadian company.

There are lots of places in Canada that have no roads or very poor quality roads. The same can be said of a number of other places around the world.

If you are moving a thousand trucks a day it is probably worth it to build a thousand miles of road to accommodate them. If you are moving the equivalent of one truck every three days to a camp that changes location every three years, it is probably NOT worth it, and a cargo airship may well be the most cost-efficient choice.

Re:Helium? (2)

TheTurtlesMoves (1442727) | about 2 years ago | (#37808442)

Even with passengers its not as bad as its always made out. First of all in the Hindenburg half the people survived. How many airline crashes any survivors. Next is hydrogen high flammability, this is fact and no amount of thermite paint is going to change that. But Jet fuel is also very flammable and a 747 with a full load of fuel has almost 100tons of it, some right under your feet. Add the fact that you can't go slower than 100s of miles and hour for landings, and planes are not any better.

Airships with hydrogen could easily be made as safe as modern airliners. However airlines are just that much faster, fly higher and are much less sensitive to weather and wind in particular. I don't see airships coming back any time soon. Even without the perceived dangers from hydrogen or a unlimited supply of helium.

As for a reduced CO2 footprint. Give people the one day trip option at the same price as the 2 hour option will not be enough (TSA are used in both). People care on a forum, not with real time or money. For cargo I can't see this beating rail or ships either with cost or CO2 footprint.

The glass is half full (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808210)

of helium!!! and hydrogen!

Re:Helium? (1)

Hentes (2461350) | about 2 years ago | (#37808482)

When helium is "lost" it gets back in the atmosphere, and then it theoretically could be get back by liquefiing air.

Re:Helium? (1)

jareth-0205 (525594) | about 2 years ago | (#37808772)

When helium is "lost" it gets back in the atmosphere, and then it theoretically could be get back by liquefiing air.

Well, not really, when helium is lost it gets back into the atmosphere, and then since it's lighter than the other gasses in the atmosphere it drifts off into space...

Seems like this would work better if it were big (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808106)

I was expecting... something a bit more.

Re:Seems like this would work better if it were bi (1)

ThorGod (456163) | about 2 years ago | (#37808166)

there's a 30 ton model...should be enough for the truck replacement problem.

Thanks for that extra .4 miles (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808140)

I would not be able to visualize the distance without it.

Re:Thanks for that extra .4 miles (1)

FormOfActionBanana (966779) | about 2 years ago | (#37808378)

Well, at least he used significant digits.

is there a helium shortage? (0)

ThorGod (456163) | about 2 years ago | (#37808160)

unless we've been fusing helium or annihilating it with antihelium...all the helium thats ever existed on earth is still here (it doesnt even bond to things for the most part!)

yeah yeah its all in where it is located...that's nothing like the problems facing oil supplies. burn a gallon of gas and it no longer exists chemically and physically (barring slight of hand or processes that take millions of years)

Re:is there a helium shortage? (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808172)

I believe that some helium /does/, in fact, escape the Earth, because it's so light that it can break free of the gravitational field. (At least, I believe that that's the principle in play.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmospheric_escape

Re:is there a helium shortage? (1)

Hentes (2461350) | about 2 years ago | (#37808496)

I don't think this is a significant effect on Earth, there might be more helium coming in from solar wind than escaping.

Re:is there a helium shortage? (1)

Pence128 (1389345) | about 2 years ago | (#37808188)

Wikipedia says that if all of the world's air distillation plants were retooled to capture helium, they would supply about 1% of global demand. Helium is going to get a lot more expensive.

Re:is there a helium shortage? (1)

citizenr (871508) | about 2 years ago | (#37808492)

Wikipedia says that if all of the world's air distillation plants were retooled to capture helium, they would supply about 1% of global demand. Helium is going to get a lot more expensive.

Who gives a shit. If you really think it will be expensive just buy out all the supplies now and reap instant profits. What? No one is doing it? Wonder why ...

Re:is there a helium shortage? (2)

Pence128 (1389345) | about 2 years ago | (#37808504)

Because people think quarters, not decades.

Re:is there a helium shortage? (1)

citizenr (871508) | about 2 years ago | (#37808518)

Because people think quarters, not decades.

Chinese think long term. They dont stock on Helium.

Re:is there a helium shortage? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808190)

Wasted helium rises to the top of the atmosphere where it escapes into space, never to be seen again.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmospheric_escape

Re:is there a helium shortage? (1)

EETech1 (1179269) | about 2 years ago | (#37808240)

I guess space is not a total vacuum then as well!

Re:is there a helium shortage? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808320)

Indeed, it isn't a *total* vacuum. I was watching a Neil DeGrasse Tyson lecture a few weeks ago -- I don't recall the exact figure, but the density of matter in outer space is something like 1 atom per cubic foot. So, for nearly all purposes it's a near-perfect vacuum. But particles do occasionally escape from planets and other stellar bodies, and they do end up spread across the universe, they don't just... disappear.

Re:is there a helium shortage? (1)

TheTurtlesMoves (1442727) | about 2 years ago | (#37808452)

Its closer to 1 proton per cubic meter (one per 27cubic feet approx ). Close to planets its higher of course, but still pretty low.

Re:is there a helium shortage? (1)

SuricouRaven (1897204) | about 2 years ago | (#37808460)

Depends on the space. Space in a solar system would have slightly more particles than space between solar systems. The emptiest space of all would be in between galactic clusters, the closest thing to a perfect vaccuum to be found in nature.

Re:is there a helium shortage? (1)

Pence128 (1389345) | about 2 years ago | (#37808248)

Wow, even worse than I thought. Article mentions that gas giants' higher gravity holds on to helium and hydrogen though. Maybe if the price of helium gets high enough a gas mining expedition will be in order.

Re:is there a helium shortage? (1)

tsotha (720379) | about 2 years ago | (#37808192)

unless we've been fusing helium or annihilating it with antihelium...all the helium thats ever existed on earth is still here (it doesnt even bond to things for the most part!)

Actually, no. Helium is light enough that it escapes the atmosphere entirely when not contained. It's gone forever. There's still quite a bit left - you find it in natural gas in the southern US, and other places, and we still have trillions of cubic meters of helium-bearing (to some extent) natural gas. But when it's gone, it really is gone. That will be something of a catastrophe, since helium has all sorts of industrial uses (like welding) for which we will not find an easy substitute.

Airships we can fill with hydrogen, at least the unmanned ones.

yeah yeah its all in where it is located...that's nothing like the problems facing oil supplies. burn a gallon of gas and it no longer exists chemically and physically (barring slight of hand or processes that take millions of years)

You can make hydrocarbon fuels if you have energy. In theory we could build a whole bunch of nuclear power plants and manufacture fuel from the air, essentially reversing the process of burning it.

Re:is there a helium shortage? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808674)

In theory we could build a whole bunch of nuclear power plants and manufacture fuel from the air, essentially reversing the process of burning it.

... if we on earth had enough Uranium it would be possible in theory...
and with space mining in out of reach - NOT possible!

Re:is there a helium shortage? (1)

EETech1 (1179269) | about 2 years ago | (#37808204)

I thought it escaped into space? Have I been misled? Where does it go?

Re:is there a helium shortage? (3, Informative)

ikkonoishi (674762) | about 2 years ago | (#37808232)

In fact helium, once lost to the atmosphere, is irrecoverable in any useful quantity. The only way we can get more is to filter it out of natural gas trapped underground. Helium could therefore be considered a petroleum byproduct.

Re:is there a helium shortage? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808328)

We have recently been producing a lot of helium from the decay of nuclear materials. However, since we are dismantling the massive cold war stockpile of bombs and burning the fissile materials in power plants, this supply line is diminishing.

Re:is there a helium shortage? (0)

ThorGod (456163) | about 2 years ago | (#37808340)

In fact helium, once lost to the atmosphere, is irrecoverable in any useful quantity. The only way we can get more is to filter it out of natural gas trapped underground. Helium could therefore be considered a petroleum byproduct.

a.) Irrecoverable at our current levels of needing to recover it/technical ability. Aluminum was very rare and expensive until *some technological advance* made mass production much less energy intensive.
b.) I'm not entirely sold that helium released into the atmosphere 'just can't be recovered'. It's going to take better than the vague wikipedia article a couple repliers have linked (it mentions no specific examples, just the general 'fact' of escape.
c.) worse case scenario: we use hydrogen or the US becomes the next Saudi Arabia. Worse things have come to pass.

The same arguments come up anytime any form of alternate *anything* is suggested. People come up with some idea as to how the alternate is 'fundamentally flawed', they find some references on wikipedia (or worse) to support their hypothesis, and slap it altogether with the kind of pseudo-scientific confidence only an internet connection can provide.

If a /. post was made about how some writing instrument worked exactly like a pen, but you could modify what you'd written, there would be 50 posts talking about the negatives of being able to change your mind before anyone mentioned "it's a freaking pencil!" They'd even have some psychological mumbo jumbo supporting their statements :)

(It's late, I'm ranty, gn /. )

Re:is there a helium shortage? (3, Insightful)

Troggie87 (1579051) | about 2 years ago | (#37808446)

Helium is the least reactive noble gas, and much lighter than air. Common sense says that it will rapidly leave our atmosphere. I dont remember the exact details (I had this brought up in a class once), but it was some combination of the ascending helium reaching escape velocity and solar wind peeling off anything that might try to settle in a super high orbit. The impending heium shortage is a well known problem, and a significant part of the reason I get an overwhelming urge to punch clowns in the face every time I see them handing out balloons.

And frankly, almost every alternative energy solution has serious if not fundamental flaws. If they didn't, we would already have been using them. Seriously, this "you're all just pessimists who work for oil companies and kick puppies" crap is getting old. Going off half cocked with some doe-eyed fantasy of a technotopian future filled with helium blimps and solar farms the size of small nations isn't going to fix anything. It took a hundred years and a lot of ignorance to get stuck in this energy policy quagmire, and logic dictates it will take twice that amount of time to get back out. You dont extract yourself from quicksand by thrashing about in a panic.

Re:is there a helium shortage? (1)

Intrepid imaginaut (1970940) | about 2 years ago | (#37808574)

And frankly, almost every alternative energy solution has serious if not fundamental flaws. If they didn't, we would already have been using them.

Really? So when the Wright brothers got their rickety and ridiculous bundle of sticks airborne, you'd have scoffed at the notion of intercontinental jets routinely ferrying hundreds of people, would you? Because, if it was going to work, it would already exist, right?

Look up Desertec for your further edification.

Re:is there a helium shortage? (1)

Rakshasa-sensei (533725) | about 2 years ago | (#37808754)

Desertec is a really cool concept, now possible thanks the the arab spring.

Re:is there a helium shortage? (1)

stms (1132653) | about 2 years ago | (#37808362)

Actually we can make a pretty much infinite supply of oil and therefore gas. The problem is that making gas from alternative oil sources is not as efficient or economical especially with cars in use today.

Re:is there a helium shortage? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808566)

And there are trace amounts of gold in every shovel full of dirt so why aren't we all rich? They don't extract it out of the air it comes out of the ground much as natural gas and oil. And like those materials it's a finite supply and it's running out. They keep finding new uses but the supply won't hold out much longer. Ironically carbon based fuels are somewhat recycled in the environment and end up as carbon stored in plants and in coral. Helium though is lost forever once it's released. Fusion would have promised an unlimited source but Fusion has been 50 years away for the last 50 years so we'll run out long before fusion can provide enough helium to launch a kid's balloon. Hellium has other more critical uses like in detection equipment and medical and scientific uses so the more practical and renewable source would be hydrogen which actually has more lift. And no it's not dangerous. The Hindenburg was a freak accident that could be avoided with modern materials. Look at it this way everyone expects to run their cars off it so how dangerous is it really? Gasoline is far more dangerous. Guess what happens when you puncture a hydrogen tank? The gas goes straight up and it's hard to ignite. Even if it is ignited it tends to just burn off safely unlike gasoline. It's no more dangerous than natural gas and no one is afraid of it. I think if they ran unmanned heavy lifters with hydrogen for a few years people would get used to them again and the stigma would fade away. Hydrogen is fairly cheap for that usage and we will never run out. Fleets of heavy lift airships could eventually take over for container ships. Transportation would be faster and they wouldn't depend on ports. Cargo could be delivered to every major city in the country. If they could be solar powered it would save a massive amount of diesel extending the life of existing oil reserves. A hybrid system could even be used where some of the hydrogen is burned to suppliment the solar. It's sad that the old ridged airships got replaced by gas guzzling airliners.

In related news (1)

arielCo (995647) | about 2 years ago | (#37808194)

Iran recentyl claimed to have discovered massive helium reserves:

http://www.google.com/search?q=iran+helium+reserve&site=universal&tbs=cdr%3A1&cd_min=9%2F1%2F2011&cd_max= [google.com]

Allegedly the estimate is 10 billion cubic meters. That was in September, but there's still no mention in major Western media.

Re:In related news (1)

SuricouRaven (1897204) | about 2 years ago | (#37808466)

Does anyone in the major Western media believe the claim? Iran isn't exactly trustworthy, and OPEC nations have a history of exagerating oil reserves.

CargoLifter (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808216)

The german company CargoLifter tried to build huge airships that carry up to 160 ton payload.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CargoLifter [wikipedia.org]

What limits the range? (1)

blindseer (891256) | about 2 years ago | (#37808228)

If the aircraft needs no fuel to stay aloft what is placing the limit on the range? At some point it would have to come down of course but why couldn't it stay up for 10,000 km instead of just 1000 km?

Lifting body aircraft with lighter than air gas to assist in lift has been tried before unsuccessfully. This is different in using solar power to drive the engines. With the low density in solar power I find it difficult to believe solar power is enough to keep the aircraft aloft. Perhaps that is where the range limitation comes in, there is only enough battery power + solar power to stay airborne for 1000 km.

Given the current technology in batteries and photovoltaic panels I'm tending to believe that a coal burning steam engine makes about as much sense in aircraft. I'll have to do the math but the power to weight ratios might just be comparable. I'll guess the coal burning would not go over very well with the global warming crowd. Perhaps a steam engine that burns wood, hemp, switchgrass, sugar beets, or some other biomass would be more acceptable and still keep the power to weight ratio within the same ball park as an electric battery pack.

I'm pleased to see technology like this getting some attention. I think that airships will make a comeback as energy prices rise and material science improves. I'm just a bit of a skeptic when it comes to solar power.

Re:What limits the range? (1)

Stoutlimb (143245) | about 2 years ago | (#37808306)

I'm assuming that the range is based on how far the airship can travel before the sun goes down, assuming it launches in the morning. For the hybrid versions, I imagine it's a combination of day travel and fuel capacity. For instance at 60km/h, the Caracal has a 500km range. That means about 8.3 hours of flight time, which is reasonable considering some days may be cloudy.

Re:What limits the range? (1)

Denihil (1208200) | about 2 years ago | (#37808310)

its heavier than air so it needs constant power to stay aloft. if it had enough helium/hydrogen to stay aloft indefinitely, it would need to release gas to land. so....which do you chose? expending gas, more risk, infinite range; or expending solar energy, safer risk, finite range?

Re:What limits the range? (1)

mosb1000 (710161) | about 2 years ago | (#37808330)

Perhaps it can only travel 1000km in a day? If you are looking at a 10 hour day, that would be a speed of 100km/h.

Photovoltaics are much lighter than you seem to think, many solar powered aircraft have been built. And a helium filled flying wing would have plenty of room for them.

Re:What limits the range? (1)

TheLink (130905) | about 2 years ago | (#37808508)

Having an airship travel 1000km isn't that difficult, the problem is making sure that enough of the 1000km it travels is in the desired direction and done within the desired time ;).

Re:What limits the range? (1)

tsotha (720379) | about 2 years ago | (#37808366)

Lifting body aircraft with lighter than air gas to assist in lift has been tried before unsuccessfully.

It's been done several times successfully, at least from an engineering standpoint. The problem with airships is more financial than technical.

Re:What limits the range? (1)

WrecklessSandwich (1000139) | about 2 years ago | (#37808594)

If the aircraft needs no fuel to stay aloft what is placing the limit on the range? At some point it would have to come down of course but why couldn't it stay up for 10,000 km instead of just 1000 km?

Ignoring the hybrid models, the big question here is how much power the solar arrays bring in on a good day compared to how much is required for forward propulsion since it's heavier than air. If propulsion costs more energy than the sun gives, your batteries eventually drain, albeit far slower than they would without the solar panels. If not, your batteries eventually drain anyways after the sun goes down.

Now, if it were lighter than air, you could stay afloat with dead batteries but you would be adrift at the mercy of the wind until you could recharge the batteries. If I were to design such a vehicle, I'd have a backup battery system in place to allow for a safe landing.

hmmm (1)

Denihil (1208200) | about 2 years ago | (#37808304)

caracal for the small version? a "mothership" for the vastly larger version? someones been playing EVE online.

Re:hmmm (1)

Pence128 (1389345) | about 2 years ago | (#37808374)

Can't be. They're not using it to transport ore produced by mining very small asteroid belts which are replaced every week by the asteroid gnomes.

Re:hmmm (1)

Denihil (1208200) | about 2 years ago | (#37808384)

i, for one, welcome our new asteroid gnome overlords.

Cheap return trip (1)

Pence128 (1389345) | about 2 years ago | (#37808312)

Depending on how the buoyancy compares to loaded weight, deadheading might be impossible. You'll have to carry huge concrete blocks on the return trip just to keep from launching yourself into space. This could lead to very low one way costs for cargo transport between certain locations.

Re:Cheap return trip (1)

SuricouRaven (1897204) | about 2 years ago | (#37808480)

Cheaper I think to transport water. Collapseable containers, easier to fill, and no worry about disposing of the bricks piling up at the loading bay.

Re:Cheap return trip (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808634)

Or put some of the helium back into the pressurised cylinder.

Re:Cheap return trip (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808690)

Wasn't the ship heavier than air?

The Deltoid Pumkin Seed (3, Insightful)

Required Snark (1702878) | about 2 years ago | (#37808394)

This idea seems familiar...

http://www.johnmcphee.com/deltoid.htm [johnmcphee.com]

The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed tells the fascinating story of the dream of a completely new aircraft, a hybrid of the airplane and the rigid airship--huge, wingless, moving slowly through the lower sky. It flies aerodynamically. It floats aerostatically. It carries bridges, buildings, fleets of trucks. It is a flying warehouse. It eliminates the need for roads, railroads, prepared harbors. Or so goes the dream. With an arching back and a deep belly, it looks like a tremendous pumpkin seed.

Helium should be reserved for superconducting (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808458)

As other posters have mentioned, Helium is in more or less finite supply, and any released into the atmosphere is irrecoverable. Additionally, due to USG's selling off of their strategic reserve, it's also artificially cheap at the moment.

Unfortunately, I understand Helium to be actually essential for superconductors at the moment (and hence MRI machines, particle accelerators etc.) so any other usage (Airships, kids' party balloons, this project) is a massive waste.

these guys have an actual working prototype (4, Informative)

Colin Smith (2679) | about 2 years ago | (#37808548)

http://www.hybridairvehicles.com/ [hybridairvehicles.com]

The US military is buying half a billion dollars worth of kit from them... Or rather through Northrop Grumman.

http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/video-northrop-grumman-wins-race-to-revive-hybrid-airships-with-517-million-order-343259/ [flightglobal.com]
 

Just (1)

Konster (252488) | about 2 years ago | (#37808562)

Just clone Al Gore.

There's your inexhaustible supply of hot air right there.

UAV (1)

WrecklessSandwich (1000139) | about 2 years ago | (#37808646)

As a robotics person, I really, REALLY, want to see autonomous variants of these. I imagine it already has some kind of GPS onboard that would be the primary means of navigation. The rest is basically a much easier version of all of the design challenges of Google's self-driving cars. You see the runway to take off/land the same way the cars see lanes on the road. You can interface with existing air traffic control infrastructure instead of dealing with the chaos of public roads.

There's absolutely no reason we shouldn't have these flying themselves all over the place carrying cargo that's normally (in the US/Canada at least) shipped via truck or rail. If the speed estimates people have come up with here based on the range are any good, shipping time would be reasonably competitive given that aircraft don't have to deal with road traffic, weigh stations, etc.

Serious question (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808654)

Which school is training these morons who spew out this "after the break" / "after the jump" nonsense that plagues the web these days?

$ man 8fun nuke # might contain proper commands for helping them...

Hot air (1)

turgid (580780) | about 2 years ago | (#37808718)

Would it possible to build something like this held up by the buoyancy of hot air rather than helium?

With the right kind of insulating materials in the envelope, heat loss could be controlled. There might also be a way of using solar power to heat the air.

Re:Hot air (1)

Arlet (29997) | about 2 years ago | (#37808792)

There might also be a way of using solar power to heat the air.

Paint it black ?

Weather conditions (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808724)

What is it doing in a storm - can it dodge by rising above?

Let me be the first to shout... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#37808750)

Monorail... monoraiiilllll... MONORAIIIIIIIL!

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