Airships, once associated with the golden age of luxury transport, could play a role in allowing people to travel the world without destroying it

Jason Allardyce writes in an article in the Sunday Times about airships, electric planes and flight rationing among low-carbon aviation alternatives mooted by an Scots academic. Do you think this is a viable possibility?


Scots researcher says zeppelins may be stairway to green travel

Airships, once associated with the golden age of luxury transport, could play a role in allowing people to travel the world without destroying it, according to leading academics.

More than 80 years after the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 — when what was then the world’s largest aircraft exploded while attempting to dock in New Jersey killing 36 people — there is interest in a return to the “hotel in the sky” using safer, greener fuel.

Other ideas drawing support within academia in Scotland and elsewhere are electric planes and even a futuristic orbital ring, with the potential to transport people across the world in under an hour.

With aviation accounting for up to 3% of annual carbon dioxide emissions, Glasgow Caledonian University researcher Keith Baker believes airships could prove a useful low-carbon alternative to burning vast amounts of fossil fuels.

The balloons of most modern airships are filled with helium rather than the explosive hydrogen used in the Hindenburg. Writing jointly in academic news website The Conversation with John Grant of Sheffield Hallam University, Baker points out that the concentrated helium is lighter than air and divided into gas sacks, so if any individual sacks are breached, the ships can stay aloft while propellers powered by flexible solar panels help with navigation.

Although there is a looming global shortage of helium, he said advances made since the Hindenburg now allow airships to fly on cylinders packed with hydrogen jet fuel, which is cheaper, lighter, and relatively abundant.

“Using hydrogen for fuel has become a lot safer since the 1930s, so much so that it’s now being considered for use in the home,” they said. “Unlike jet aircraft, once airships are aloft they don’t need lots of energy to keep them there. At that point, the energy costs become comparable with rail travel.”

They added: “Airships won’t get passengers to their destinations very fast — the Hindenburg set the current record for a transatlantic crossing at just under 44 hours — but they do allow time to enjoy stunning vistas.

“Think of them instead as air cruises. In the romantic era of early commercial flight, airships were expected to become flying hotels that could accommodate dining rooms and ballroom dances.”

Baker, a research associate in sustainable urban environments at the university, told The Sunday Times he believes that because airships can land anywhere, with no need for any road infrastructure, they could also form part of a more sustainable tourism industry.

He also believes air miles, which incentivise people to fly more, should be cancelled, and suggests regulation and subsidy may be required to reverse the situation in which flying is often cheaper than travelling by train, although the latter is more environmentally friendly.

He added that train travel could become greener still using solar power and he believes there could be a good case for extending the underground rail network in Glasgow to offer greener, congestion- free travel to more people.

Another option is rationing flights, with travellers only allowed to fly 500km in one year and able to “bank” any leftover annual allocation for other years. An alternative is to introduce an extra tax on flights, with the proceeds used to make rail travel more affordable.

Earlier this year, the world’s first all-electric commercial airliner was unveiled in Paris. It is due to enter service in 2022, and Baker believes that improvements to batteries, and scope to power these by renewable energy, means zero-carbon electric flights may be feasible in future.

Perhaps the most audacious idea of all is the orbital ring suggested by Grant of Sheffield Hallam University’s natural and built environment department. A ring of steel cable would surround Earth 80km above its surface. Connected to the ground by steel cables, which would also host passenger lifts, the ring could support two Maglev train tracks which would use magnets to propel trains without friction at great speeds. The combined forces of gravity and velocity would hold the ring in place, allowing passengers to reach the other side of the world in as little as 45 minutes.

While they admit some of the options may sound unrealistic, they argue that our current course of expanding carbon-intensive air travel is “unrealistic for avoiding catastrophic climate change” and that bold ideas and radical action are required.

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