Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Move over FedEx, Here Comes FatEx

You may have read my blog on the necessity of change. Population growth and global warming are increasing at a break-neck speed. Although your life seems normal now, it won’t stay that way. Wind, solar, and nuclear energy projects of the future won’t be built on the basis of a referendum. They will be mandatory. Cars will have to go hydrogen (derived from electrolysis) or electric. And so will planes. The future of the airline industry for hauling freight and people about the globe will have to change. Jet aircraft will have to adopt hydrogen as a fuel. But there is an alternative. It is slower and harkens back to an earlier time, but modern technology breathes new life into the concept of an airship.

My previous post on this subject touched on passenger air travel but this concept is even more appropriate when talking about freight. By combining several unique concepts, modern airships will revolutionize air travel; carrying 500 tons cross country at 100 mph--no fuel involved. The major problem with airships in the past has been two-fold: 1. They required ballast to offset lift, therefore the ballast and the lifting gas became consumables, each one in turn having to be jettisoned to make the craft rise or fall. 2. They could not land like a plane. A ground crew was required to handle the lighter-than-air craft, and it could not be done in a stiff breeze.

These two problems and more have technical fixes. You start with a lighter-than-air lifting body and add wings and a solid floor to which everything is attached. Flexible solar cells cover the body and power up lithium-ion batteries which turn motors and props, thrusting it through the air silently without the products of combustion fouling the atmosphere.

Lifting bags of helium, the lifting body design, and the wings provide lift. The frame of the ship is not metal. It is light-weight inflatable structures, much like the bouncy castle used for a kid’s birthday party. But this "bouncy castle" is heavier duty, utilizing modern fiber technology to allow higher pressures resulting in a much stiffer support. These air-filled trusses support the solar cell skin on the outside and the lifting bags of helium on the inside.

Helium lifting bags are the key to making the airship work properly. They, along with the wings and lifting body, provide the lift to allow this ship to carry a million pounds of cargo. Unlike in the past, however, helium does not have to be discharged to allow the ship to land. Instead, pumps suck out the helium gas, storing it in pressurized containers for re-use. This causes the lift bags to be variable in their lifting capacity, allowing the pilot to switch to a slightly heavier-than-air mode for more maneuverability when landing. The fact that it can land and be hangared like a plane greatly increases its safety in bad weather.

When it has to be there overnight, jets rule, but for the majority of freight, the price could drop dramatically with the advent of solar-powered airships, and it would be a start in cleaning up and revitalizing an industry that is so important to us all.

Please leave your thoughts, comments, suggestions. They are always welcome.

Glen Hendrix, author of Transmat World

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