Image via Cargolifter.com, via the Guardian
The role of airplanes have long been a tough piece to fit into the puzzle of transitioning to a low-carbon future -- the huge amounts of jet fuel they burn make them some of the most notorious emitters on the planet. But, industrialized societies have also grown accustomed to the convenience of air travel, and many rely as well upon air freight. So how to reconcile a heavily polluting staple of modern human and goods transportation with a need to reel in emissions? Simple, one scientist says: Trade them in for helium-powered blimps. The Guardian reports that the UK's "former chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir David King ... 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."
And this is no flight of fancy, either (excuse the groan-worthy pun). The US Department of Defense has already made large grants to prominent aviation companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin to pursue exactly that goal; namely, a fleet of blimps that could make air freight cheaper and less polluting.
King says that "as a result, the helium-powered ships could be carrying freight - and even passengers - in as little as a decade's time."
These "airships" would be slower than conventional airplanes, but could carry much more cargo: "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." And some developers say that transporting goods by blimp can slash carbon emissions by as much as 90% in many cases.
As for human airship travel, less is certain. The focus is currently on gearing up blimps to takeover much of the air freight business. But I certainly think there's ample room for an airship travel market -- it's been long enough since the Hindenburg, right? Plenty of environmentally conscious consumers would find the prospect alluring -- and so would thrifty ones, considering blimp travel would presumably be cheaper than jet fuel-reliant airplane travel.