The Good Green Blimp

Air cargo is about to go steampunk


Boeing image by Joe Naujokas

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You bike to work, sort your glass, and BYO grocery bag. But environmentally speaking, just one airplane trip can wipe out an entire year’s worth of conscious living.  

Planes belch climate-changing gases like carbon dioxide at an alarming rate. One round-trip flight from New York City to Denver releases nearly a thousand pounds of carbon dioxide. And while the recession has taken a bite out of air travel, it remains the second-most-popular transportation mode in the United States. Add the footprint of air cargo, and the environmental costs of our mile-high habits negate even the most ambitious carbon-cutting agenda.  

Engineers are finding hope for greener skies in an unlikely place: the past. To most of us, the notion of an airship seems as antiquated as bow ties and bowler hats. The U.S. military sees it differently. The same brain trust that brought us the interstate highway and the Internet is now bent on building a better airship, reports IEEE Spectrum (Oct. 2010).  

Airships (think: the Goodyear blimp) have been around since the 1800s, and today’s versions work on the same basic principle as their predecessors. Rather than using a combustion engine to get off the ground, airships use bags filled with gases like helium that are lighter than air and thus cause the ship to float. The energy savings are obvious.  

The new breed of blimp has undergone some significant tweaks. “Unlike their dirigible cousins of past centuries, these new vehicles are being designed to lift heavy payloads, remain aloft for weeks or even months at a time, and fly without pilots—all while expending far less energy than a conventional airplane,” IEEE Spectrum explains.  

Several projects are under development, including a $400 million program to place in the stratosphere an unmanned missile-detecting airship that is powered by solar and fuel cells and designed to remain in place for a decade. Even more promising are hybrid versions that use helium to provide some of the lift along with wings or helicopter-style rotors.  

So when can you book a flight? It might be a while. All the projects featured in Spectrum are meant for military or cargo purposes, and most of them are still in the research and development phase.

Cover-MA11-thumbnailThis article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.