Solar airships that look a lot like the Hindenburg—but powered by batteries and flexible solar panels rather than a highly combustible fuel—are emerging as a possible route to decarbonizing air travel, one of the toughest challenges on the road to a zero-carbon future.
While other researchers scramble to find the (possibly) sustainable fuel, hydrogen system, or battery array that will replace fossil fuels for long-haul flights, “relaunching a century-old technology could be a faster approach to climate-friendly air travel,” Anthropocene Magazine reports, citing a new paper in the International Journal of Sustainable Energy. The ships would produce at most 1/20 the emissions of conventional medium-range passenger travel, 1.4% for freight, and cost less to haul goods across the oceans.
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“The airship envisioned in the new study would carry a 10-ton battery and be covered with seven tons of flexible solar cells—capable of providing enough energy for long-haul routes such as between London and New York,” Anthropocene writes. “The battery would be charged before takeoff, representing the only potential source of carbon emissions for the flight. The solar cells would provide the power to propel the airship, as well as recharge the battery to keep the ship aloft at night.”
The flights would be a lot slower than travelling by jet—two days and one night eastbound between New York and London, then three days and two nights for the return trip due to heavier headwinds. A 1,791-kilometre flight from Madrid to the Canary Islands would take seven to 20 hours.
“But this speed should be fine for freight transport and is faster than sending freight by sea,” the news story states. “And for passenger travel, the slower speed could actually be an advantage. Airships are much more spacious than jet planes, with room for a passenger dining room and private sleeping quarters,” and the slower, more relaxed ride could reduce jet lag when travellers reach their destination.
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