Friday, August 23, 2019

Because of Global Warming We Need Zepplelins! Or Something Like That

A friend sent me this story from NBC Mach.  It's actually a pretty amazing story; I went from bemusement to confusion to asking "WTAF?" all in the space of the few screens of text.

Let me sum it up for you.  Container ships now carry a large amount of cargo around the world, but they burn diesel fuel and carbon is bad!   So we need to build floating airships - a mile and a half long - to carry that cargo around the world.  Because west to east travel is "free" and low pollution, "all we gotta do" is get those floating cargo ships into the jet stream, somewhere between 20,000 and 42,000 feet up (or between four and eight miles if you prefer).
As proposed in a recent scientific paper, the new airships would be 10 times bigger than the 800-foot Hindenburg — more than five times as long as the Empire State Building is tall — and soar high in the atmosphere. They’d do the work of traditional oceangoing cargo ships but would take less time and generate only a fraction of the pollution.

“We are trying to reduce as much as possible emissions of carbon dioxide because of global warming,” said Julian Hunt, a postdoctoral fellow at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, and the paper’s lead author.
(Note, I do hate to be pedantic, but when they say, "generate only a fraction of the pollution", 2/2 is a fraction.  So is 4/2.  They don't mean what the author implies, but they are fractions)

The jet streams are a permanent part of the atmosphere but they aren't fixed in a geographic place or in their exact route.  They move north and south with the seasons, and move around with weather systems, sometimes taking huge omega shapes, sometimes being relatively straight; sometimes blowing several hundred mph, sometimes under 100.  Sometimes they can be relatively smooth flow, but at other times can be turbulent, swirling winds.  They're often referred to as rivers in the air, and their behavior can be similar to rivers in how the flow rate changes with the season and conditions. 

If you're like me, you might well be saying, "Wait!  Zeppelins a mile and a half long?  How much cargo are they talking about carrying?  I want to see neat 'artist's concept' drawings of an 8000 foot long air ship."  I went to the article linked in that first indented paragraph, but there were no drawings, just a table that shows they envision an airship 10x the size of the Hindenburg: 2453 meters (8048 feet) long and 412 meters (1352 feet) in diameter.  Such a ship would be expected to carry:
Cargo useful lift (tons) 21,000
Empty weight (tons) 14,000
Total weight (tons) 35,000
That 21,000 ton cargo lift is 625 standard 20 foot cargo containers.  The earliest generation cargo ships would handle 500 to 800 of those 20 foot units (the industry abbreviation is TEUs).  Later generation ships carry 5000 or more, up to 8000 TEUs, so while 625 sounds good, compared to the oceanic freighter fleet, many more zeppelins would be required. There are container ships that can carry ten and twenty thousand TEUs. 

Now the references to the Hindenburg might be something you'd expect them to avoid, since there's that unfortunate, almost universal memory of the ship crashing and burning on its final flight, but that's not where Dr. Hunt is going.  See the Hindenburg's explosion prompted the abandonment of the hydrogen system that the Hindenburg used for buoyancy and replaced it with helium as used in today's lighter-than-air craft like the Goodyear blimp and others that are in service today.  But Dr. Hunt proposes these mile and a half long, 35,000 ton craft be run on hydrogen!
But for all their high-tech advances, Hunt said, the new airships would still get their buoyancy from hydrogen, a highly flammable gas that is 14 times lighter than air. It’s the same gas the Hindenburg and the other big zeppelins used in the 1930s.

The possibility of another giant explosion has some pushing back against an airship renaissance.

“There is a resistance — because of the Hindenburg — to big bags of hydrogen,” said Eric Lanteigne, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Ottawa in Canada, who was not affiliated with the new research. He said that’s why the Goodyear blimp and other small airships now operating are filled with helium, the harmless gas found in party balloons.

But if helium offers a greater margin of safety, it’s expensive and hard to come by. It’s found only in pockets of natural gas deep underground, with its extraction usually a byproduct of highly polluting drilling. Hydrogen, on the other hand, can be extracted from water and so would much cheaper.
Did you catch the insult of "highly polluting drilling"?  The article is peppered with things like that and it gave me the impression that this Dr. Hunt believes he will be the one to Save the World.  So yes, they can electrolyze water to produce hydrogen and liberate oxygen (or store it for other use), but that's not a "free" process and I'd like to see numbers for their "would be much cheaper" claim.  It takes energy input to break water apart and that energy will come from somewhere.
To minimize the risks associated with hydrogen, Hunt envisions getting rid of the crew. The airships would operate autonomously — and would be loaded and unloaded by robots.

“The idea would be that the whole process would be automated so that in case you have an accident, no one will be injured — only the equipment and the cargo,” Hunt said, adding that some of the hydrogen in an airship could be used to power an on-board fuel cell that would spin the craft's propellers.

As an additional bonus, Hunt said, the fuel cell would generate as a byproduct water that could be released as the craft passed over regions hit by drought.
That last paragraph strikes me as salesmanship again.  "And if you're having a drought, we can make it rain!!"

The middle paragraph hints at what gets me.  Call me skeptical, but "what goes up must come down." They're talking about putting not one, but dozens or hundreds of these 35,000 ton behemoth aircraft and their cargo into the air 4 to 8 miles up, with minimal propulsion so they save emissions, bobbing along in a turbulent, swirling, "river in the sky" and they're worried about the hydrogen?  How about worrying about having a shipping container fall into a building?  Or having all of them fall into a city?  

The USS Macon over Manhattan - 1933.

My take on cargo container ships is that they've changed our world radically and are "unsung heroes" of modern life.  Considering it can take them over a mile to stop or accelerate to their traveling speed, they're not ocean-going hot rods.  They're ocean going long-haul trucks.  They're powered for what they need to do.


  1. And it's not even a new or novel concept as Neal Stephenson used it in Diamond Age, which came out in 1995 although I think it was used primarily for cheap movement of people rather than freight.

  2. While many "greenies" are nasty malevolent nags seeking to impose their belief system on everyone else by any means necessary many other "greenies" are well intentioned. But both groups seem to have a commonality....the lack of common sense and a knowledge of basic math.

  3. Warning. Heavy amounts of sarcasm just ahead.

    No mention of covering the cargo Zeppelins with solar cells?
    No mention of parachuting loaded containers back to earth, because what could possibly go wrong with that idea.
    I'm sure that the software for autonomous cars could easily be used to pilot the cargo Zeppelins. Especially because that has worked out so well.

    I did crank out the Kinetic energy of a 33 ton cargo container dropped from eight miles. That is a big number.

    I'll second what commenter Dan said.

    1. Actually, there was talk about covering the zeppelins in solar cells. I forgot.

      No talk about parachuting cargo, though. They need power to change levels in the atmosphere so they would have engines, but their emphasis was really on the "free travel west to east".

  4. I'll believe in autoflying aircraft after they perfect autodriving cars.
    I'll believe in autodriving cars after they perfect autodriving trains. Which, you know, run on rails.

  5. Another terrific idea that Just Never Works Out. A mile and a half long, you say? Time to refresh knowledge of WIND SHEAR.

    1. Something that I thought about putting in the piece early on but forgot while actually writing is that I don't think mankind has ever built anything a mile and half long that moved. Just roads and bridges. Trains aren't one piece - and I doubt there are mile and a half long trains. No sailing ships. No powered ships.

      I imagine it could be done, but I bet they'll find places where regular processes don't work due to the size.

    2. On the Titanic's initial trials in Southampton, it got rammed by a Royal Navy ship. This led (as you'd imagine) to an inquest which showed that the Titanic was so much longer than anything that had ever been built that the hydrodynamics of two ships passing at what was "normal" distance led to the smaller ship being pulled into the larger one.

      Nobody had ever seen that, because nothing that large had ever been built. It's a cold hard guarantee that an airship this big will reveal things that we've never encountered before, and it's a cold dead certainty that the "Artificial Intelligence" that pilots the damn thing win't be able to cope.

    3. SiGraybeard, I have seen mile long trains out west, (Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas) both in waiting for them to pass sitting at a crossing, or paralleling them on a rural road. have also read about derailments of trains that long.

      Now that was back in the 80's. Possibly they don't do that anymore.

    4. RandyGC - My bad. I meant trains where one car is over a mile and a half long. They would need tracks that have really long radius curves so that two sets of wheels 1-1/2 miles apart would stay on the track.

      I think. What I know about rail history doesn't even fill a thimble.

  6. I hate to interrupt their fantasy state with anything resembling a potential real-world solution, but we could always go back to sailing craft. There exist ships out there that actually reduce their fuel use by deploying wings to catch the wind.

    Or we could just ignore the loons. That probably would be better for both sides.

  7. Waitwaitwait...

    1) they want to make a dirigible filled with highly flammable hydrogen gas (which worked out so well in 1937).

    2) They want to make it four times longer than the World Trade Center towers were tall (which worked out so well in 2001).

    3) They want it to carry 21000 tons of cargo (which worked out so well on Lake Superior in 1975).

    4) Then they want to take it up into the jet stream, dirigibles historically being notably so agile, nimble, and structurally sound (the Hindenburg maxxed out at 84 MPH, btw) in winds from 60-200 MPH (which also worked out so well with dirigibles like Akron and Shenandoah).

    5) then they want them piloted by AI (two lies for the price of one, it being neither thing), computer hardware and software being so well-written, and impermeable by attempts to hack it and maliciously use it (as everything computerized has demonstrably worked so well from 1970-five seconds ago, and onwards to infinity).

    And what could possible go wrong with flying the Megahindenburg fleet, each one multiple times the size of the World Trade Center, and carrying a payload the size of the Edmund Fitzgerald hurtling along wrapped in flammable gas at altitude, where each payload consists of 625 containers grossing at 33.6 tons@, roughly the same payload of nine B-52H models?!?!?!? (And I'm being sportingly generous, and only going by number of projectiles, noting that the Megahindenburgs' cargo will be non-explosive, albeit still coming down in 33 ton blivets from 40,000'.)

    I'm going to be lenient and sentimental here:
    Whatever fucktard(s) burped out this idea seriously should have a sack thrown over him/them NLT sunup Monday, be institutionalized for criminal clinical insanity, and locked in a pit deeper than the national nuclear waste repository, such that food and daylight would have to be pumped into their subterranean crypt(s) for life, some mile or more beneath the earth's surface, until they have expired in oblivion some decades hence.
    We should lock them in, and throw away the prison.

    Anyone who repeats the idea should be skinned alive, and then dipped 12 times an hour into a vat of salt water and rubbing alcohol, until the urge passes, or the screaming stops. If the urge continues, switch the dunk tank to gasoline, and set it alight.

    Then they should hunt down and exterminate their combined families, to three generations, and fifth cousins. Just to be sure.

    That's unquestionably Fucktard Of the Year material, right there.
    I'm going to guess there's an Ivy League Ph.D behind this, somewhere.
    Nothing less would do unless dealer-quantities of hallucinogenic narcotics are involved.

    1. Come on Aesop - Don't beat around the bush. Tell us how you really feel.

  8. Having retired from a long and distinguished career in aerospace I must be as qualified to spew bullshit as the people who promulgated the idea. I wish to add my knowledge to the solution of the technical aspects of a flammable gasbag the size of an Imperial Star Cruiser drifting along the Jetstream.
    1) To solve the problem of the flammability of hydrogen I suggest replacing or augmenting hydrogen with hot air. Gigantic solar panels would deploy like a full rigged clipper ship to heat the gas reservoir, and like the sails of a clipper ship the could be trimmed to yield maximum efficiency.
    2) Since unicorn flatulence is known to Science to be non-polluting, a crash program to genetically engineer the requisite unicorns must be started immediately.
    I realize my suggestions would require a lot of $, which it the best part. It could serve to keep legions of "scientists" busy sucking up resources for decades, leading to all sorts of new products in other applications.

  9. It's not just the flammable hydrogen. The age of rigid airships ended in part because a structure light enough to be lifted by a lighter than air gas wasn't strong enough to withstand the winds aloft during storms. The USS Macon and USS Akron both crashed even though they used helium for buoyancy.

    As an aside, producing hydrogen is not the environmental panacea that some "environmentalists" think it is. If you make it by electrolyzing water it costs more energy than you get back by converting back to electricity and water in a fuel cell (that pesky second law of thermodynamics). If you make it by cracking hydrocarbons, in addition to the losses inherent in the process, you have that evil drilling to extract oil or gas.

    Then there is all those potentially sparky robots, electric motors, computers etc., in close proximity to hydrogen which will permeate any gas bag material.

  10. Rail transport has been mentioned a couple of times. That is currently the job field to which I am receiving an income, so I can add to the conversation in that category!

    Corporate bean counters discovered that making a train twice as long reduces the labor cost by half! I can say from experience, there was one train crossing from one track to another. And then in the process, one of the couplers broke which triggered an emergency brake application. So now you have both tracks blocked by one broken train. That was just a minor inconvenience.

    I imagine if anyone (including myself) tries to find what they can regarding derailments, longer train lengths *might* be officially listed as a factor, although i would be VERY curious to hear if anyone ACTUALLY finds anything? In any case, train lengths in excess of 2 miles happens sometimes everyday! They run a little bit better when they are basically 2 standard trains coupled together. Radio data links allows the lead engine to send control signals to the secondary locomotives.

    As for making one single vehicle even 1/2 mile long, it would either have to be some kind of “centipede” connected pieces... i can’t even imagine what kind of structure could be 1/2 mile long AND be laden with any kind of cargo moving over the rails...???

  11. There is a limit to how much weight the wheels and rail lengths can handle. Current weights seem to be close to rail limits, judging by the occasional derailments.

  12. Build one. Just stop talking in a university setting and gets a working design. Hell, build a quarter scale proof of concept and get it flying in jet stream for testing. Take lots of video.

  13. Well, it's a spectacularly stupid idea, but part of it is already uncomfortably close to reality. Namely, Airbus planes are designed such that if the human pilot and the autopilot disagree on a course of action, the pilot has to take his attention from the controls and deliberately press buttons (two switches) to disable the "flight-envelope-protections" so that he can make the aircraft do things that the computer would otherwise not permit him to.

    Boeing, on the other hand, allows the pilot to override the computer by simply forcibly manipulating the controls, no change in focus required.

    In one type of plane, the pilot is the absolute commander. In the other, he's merely a member of a committee, who happens to have veto power.

    Autopilot is really incredibly common in planes, now, it's just not something most people think about; most people don't fly every day of their lives, whereas most people do *drive* just about every day.