Could hydrogen airships come back as fast, cheap and environmentally friendly freight transport?

California startup H2 Clipper wants to bring back airships filled with hydrogen, saying they can unlock fully green intercontinental cargo operations carrying 8-10 times the payload of any cargo plane over 6,000 miles, to a quarter of the price.

The H2 Clipper would carry payloads of up to 340,000 lbs (150,000 kg), according to the company, and offer up to 265,000 cubic feet (7,530 cubic meters) of cargo space. It wouldn’t travel as fast as an airplane, cruising at around 175 mph (282 km / h), but it would move boxes 7 to 10 times faster than a ship (from China to the United States in 36 hours, for example) and with zero emissions.

Its lifting gas would be hydrogen – providing some 8% more lift by volume than helium at around 1 / 67th the price. Its propulsion would be entirely electric, running on liquid hydrogen passed through a fuel cell. H2 Clipper says it would work effectively for missions ranging from less than 500 miles (804 km) to “well over 6,000 miles (9,656 km)”. It would connect any two points on the globe with a single refill of fuel. In current renderings, the company shows the top of this huge plane covered in photovoltaic cells, which could theoretically allow it to generate its own hydrogen, if it carried a water source and an electrolyzer.

With the right arrangements in place, it could transport goods directly from a factory to a distribution center without the need for additional ground transportation steps to and from airports, thanks to its vertical take-off and landing capabilities. .

Hydrogen becomes a clean aviation fuel. Will it come back for use as a lifting gas?

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H2 Clipper says profitability will be attractive as well, estimating costs between $ 0.177 and $ 0.247 per tonne-mile for distances between 1,000 and 6,000 miles. He says it’s a quarter of the price of air travel today. Granted, this will always cost more than sending things on a container ship, but it potentially cuts down on additional logistical challenges at either end – and the shipping industry’s emissions woes may well see it slapped with taxes. on carbon as the race for zero carbon. by 2050 is expanding globally.

On the surface, everything seems to be working pretty well. Of course, there’s a big elephant in the room here, or at least a huge manatee: hydrogen, along with any other flammable substance, is currently banned as a lifting gas in the United States and Europe, due to some high profile airship disasters. at the beginning of the 1900s, engraved in the public conscience by the news of the Hindenburg conflagration in 1937 which killed 35 of the 97 people on board.

But it is possible that all is not as it seems in this regard – and indeed there are several groups which are starting to criticize what they see as a unfair perception and legal treatment of hydrogen airships it could hold back valuable technology.

The H2Clipper would sail at around 10,000 feet, lifted and propelled by green hydrogen

The H2Clipper would sail at around 10,000 feet, lifted and propelled by green hydrogen

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The argument is well put this recent piece by Eli Dourado, Principal Investigator at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University. We will detail it here for you:

  • Hydrogen was first banned as a lifting gas in US military planes in 1922, after a rather theatrical demonstration of explosive balloons before Congress by a representative of the Bureau of Mines, who found himself seated on important helium reserves. In his 1969 book on the beginnings of the helium industry, Clifford Stebel, a Mining employee, admits that hydrogen should not have exploded in this scenario, and hints that he tampered with it: “Later, with a wink, Moore accused me of adding air to the red balloon to create an explosive mixture, which I didn’t never admitted.
  • The aviation industry as a whole was in an embryonic phase in the early 1900s, and most flight modes had less than stellar safety records, which were then addressed with exacting standards and new technology. Hydrogen airships should have the same opportunity.
  • To prohibit the use of flammable substances which generate aerostatic lift, but to allow them to be used which generate forward thrust, is absurd. Leaks of flammable fuel have caused many air disasters without these substances being banned at wholesale.
  • The FAA’s current ban on hydrogen lift gas is just a guideline, and nearly all aircraft that go through certification do so after negotiating a series of waivers and special conditions.

The entire piece is interesting to read. H2 Clipper, for his part, tokens in it point out that extensive testing in the automotive industry has proven that hydrogen tanks can be shot with 50 caliber rifles, and the hydrogen escaping into the air can be ignited with open flames without causing explosions.

“With modern engineering standards,” writes Dourado, “there is no doubt that hydrogen could become a safe lifting gas.” But, he stresses, the only way to know for sure would be to develop and certify a next-generation hydrogen airship, which would require millions of investments, against the possible risk of the program being halted by the regulations.

Range figures of 6,000 miles and beyond would offer reasonably fast intercontinental shipping with zero emissions

Range figures of 6,000 miles and beyond would offer reasonably fast intercontinental shipping with zero emissions

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This is a difficult demand for investors, although a new category of investors could have their stomachs to throw. Green hydrogen projects are taking off at an extraordinary rate as countries and businesses grapple with the obstacles and opportunities of decarbonization. The investors behind these already have a lot of skin in the game, and an incentive not only to develop potential markets for their hydrogen, but to rehabilitate its image.

H2 Clipper’s hydrogen cargo airships could be the ideal solution. They present a minimal risk to human life – they will initially be piloted, but could eventually become completely autonomous. They present a happy medium in the transport logistics puzzle – cheaper than airplanes, faster than ships, virtually unlimited range and excellent operational flexibility. And there is currently no alternative if you want to cover great distances without creating carbon dioxide emissions.

These airships could also be immediately useful to the hydrogen industry; H2 Clipper says that if you are looking to export liquid hydrogen internationally, as many countries hope to do in bulk, its airships will beat rail, trucks, ships and even pipelines for distances greater than 1,000 miles – while delivering the H2 quickly to just about anywhere on Earth.

H2 Clipper founder and CEO Rinaldo Brutoco presented at the 2nd International Hydrogen in Aviation Conference, held in Glasgow in September, saying the company would start designing a small-scale prototype in 2022, hoping to fly it in 2024. an airship put into service by 2026, and 100 of them will carry cargo by the early 2030s.

It’s a fascinating idea with obvious obstacles to overcome. We will follow the evolution of the company!

Source: H2 mower

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