Could a solar-powered dirigible be the cargo ship of our peak-oil, carbon-constrained future? If the inventor of the patent pending High Speed Solar Airship is correct, the future of long haul cargo combines solar powered transmission married to centuries-old dirigible technology.
Like the old blimp, a gas envelope lifts the airship from sea level to its cruising altitude. Unlike the old blimp, this new solar blimp would cruise at a much higher altitude: at 30,000 feet.
The HSSA would be powered by 24,000 square feet of thin-film solar cells in an integrated application on top of the balloon – for 62.7 KW of rated power. However, that rating would be if it was on earth.
Because of the altitude, there would also be a 30% efficiency boost of the solar power once aloft, just from the freezing cold at that altitude. In addition, because the height is well above cloud levels; sunlight is unobstructed. This would provide sun for well over the maximum earthbound solar access of up to 8 hours a day.
Thinner air at that height also means faster speeds.The 320 foot long airship could reach daytime speeds of 182 MPH utilizing a 96 MPH average Jet Stream wind speed, and even continue flying at night with a speed of 165 MPH, carrying 60 tons of cargo, and 2 million cubic feet of helium.
The inventor has done some limited flight testing with a 1:20 scale model and if it works at full size, this could be a very low carbon cargo transport option of the future.
The company SolarAirShip claims that its $5 million blimp would be competitive both in speed and in cost with conventional trucking, at least when traveling with the Jet Stream assist.
Because it only needs water to weigh it down for unloading and unloading, the company says it is possible to land in places roads can’t reach, without a landing strip, and carrying much more cargo much more cheaply than any traditional VTOL aircraft could provide. The implications for disaster relief and emergency rescue are significant.
However, helium gas to loft the solar cargo blimp is a scarce resource, now produced very slowly via decaying uranium and thorium. The other buoyancy gas options are ammonia, coal gas, hydrogen, and methane. All are worse greenhouse gases or dangerously flammable.
One option might be to use solar-heated air for the lifting envelope, since hot air rises. The original dirigibles of the 1700’s were lofted up by air heated by burners underneath. Instead of burning a fuel, though, some of the solar could be used to heat air to lift it.