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Solar Powered Helium Airship- The Future of Air Freight Transport

VariaLift, solar powered helium airship

A UK scientist has developed an innovative idea for a helium airship powered with solar, that could be the key to reducing air-freight emissions.

If the world is planning on meeting the climate change goals decided at the Paris Climate Conference last year, there are going to need to be drastic changes- the energy system will need to be at least close to/at zero emissions in the next 50 years.

In the sector of electricity there are a range of technologies becoming more and more popular (such as residential solar power systems), so there is not a huge challenge there.

However, sectors such as air travel/ transport have not yet been addressed which is worrying as it accounts for quite a hefty amount of the world’s emissions.

The UK conservative government climate change special representative and former chief scientist, Sir David King, has come up with something that may address this issue- a helium filled airship, powered significantly with solar panels.

Mr King introduced his idea during an ‘innovation’ session at the International Renewable Energy summit held in Abu Dhabi.

He spoke of an all-aluminium airship design and manufacturing company VariaLift, who are currently raising finances in order to test their idea of using their airships to move significant freight quantities with no additional costs to current methods, with renewable fuels mostly used as well as only generating a small percentage of the current emissions in comparison to other means.

About the airship

Mr King invites us to imagine an airship up to 250m in length and 150m wide, with the equivalent height of a 12 storey building.

The aircraft would be made out of an aluminium frame and contain 12 big bags filled with helium, and compressors. This would allow it to carry and transport a maximum of 500 tonnes by simply letting the helium go. No energy would be required for lifting vertically, only when moving horizontally or displacement.

Speeds of up to 300 knots could be reached with solar panels, Mr King says.

“Now, if you want to move crates of tomatoes, say from Spain to the UK, you can use the vast surface of the airship to intersect with the sunlight.”

Produce could be delivered directly to the customer with the use of this craft- there will be no need for airports, and it could be tethered right above a supermarket, where a crane lowers the produce to the ground (this also reduces emissions by eliminating airport to supermarket transport).

Even though it’s more expensive, when using helium there are no risks attached, unlike airships such as the Hindenberg which were hydrogen filled and burst into flames.

Mr King labelled the design “transformational”. Buoyancy can be changed very quickly using the helium pumps, and the need for airports is no more.

“I think these things could stay in the air for three years, without landing. It will change the nature of air freight,” he said.

In terms of costs, the solar powered helium airship will be similar to a jumbo jet, however like other renewable energy technologies the costs to keep running it are quite low once the initial capital costs are paid.

In order to test their theories, VariaLift is searching for capital. There are currently three models proposed, at 500 tonne, 250 tonne and 50 tonne capacities.

Solar power is not specifically mentioned on the VariaLift website, however they stated 80 per cent less fuel than current technologies will be burnt.

The website states that, “It is a unique craft, allowing remote areas to be connected with no infrastructure and deliver different types of cargo ranging from low density goods to large prefabricated structures of weight 50 to 500 metric tonnes,”.

“The world today requires a method of air transport that can carry heavy loads for long or short distances without large numbers of ground staff and facilities,” it says.


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