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IEEE Spectrum

Could Airships Rise Again?

Transportation produces about one-fourth of global anthropogenic carbon emissions. Of this, maritime shipping accounts for 3 percent, and this figure is expected to increase for the next three decades even though the shipping industry is actively seeking greener alternatives, and developing near-zero-emission vessels.

Researchers with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria recently explored another potential solution: the return of airships to the skies. Airships rely on jet stream winds to propel them forward to their destinations. They offer clear advantages over cargo ships in terms of both efficiency and avoided emissions. Returning to airships, says Julian Hunt, a researcher at the IIASA and lead author of the new study, could “ultimately [increase] the feasibility of a 100 percent renewable world.”

Today, world leaders are meeting in New York for the UN Climate Action Summit to present plans to address climate change. Already, average land and sea surface temperatures have risen to approximately 1 degree C above pre-industrial levels. If the current rate of emissions remains unchecked, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that by 2052, temperatures could rise by up to 2 degrees C. At that point, as much as 30 percent of Earth’s flora and fauna could disappear, wheat production could fall by 16 percent, and water would become more scarce.

According to Hunt and his collaborators, airships could play a role in cutting future anthropogenic emissions from the shipping sector. Jet streams flow in a westerly direction with an average wind speed of 165 kilometers per hour (km/h). On these winds, a lighter-than-air vessel could travel around the world in about two weeks (while a ship would take 60 days) and require just 4 percent of the fuel consumed by the ship, Hunt says.

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