What are blimps?
An airship, dirigible balloon or blimp is a lighter–than–air aircraft that can navigate through the air under its own power—without any fuel or energy. Airships lift off thanks to a lifting gas—could be helium or hydrogen—that is less dense than atmospheric air.
Learn more by watching the video below:
Why aren’t blimps in commercial use?
As shown in the video above, after the Hindenburg crash of 1937 the world became disillusioned with the idea of airship travel and the industry collapsed all together and focused on airplanes. Although, blimps that lift with helium are significantly safer, the industry never really recovered from the crash.
Blimps wouldn’t necessarily replace airplanes as they have a maximum speed of 115km/h and a maximum altitude of 2,135m. However, they could replace commercial shipping, as it would be a plausible zero-carbon alternative, as they can contain heavy cargo.
But could they replace airplanes all together?
In Kim Stanley-Robinson’s dystopic novel The Ministry for the Future as the world turns away from fossil fuels and commercial airplanes, an airship community begins to thrive. Living in the air, and appreciating landscapes and wildlife by slowly floating above. Tourists and travellers can hitch a ride and gaze at the wonders just below them, sleeping on the blimps whilst both admiring and protecting our planet… Could this actually happen?
Is helium a renewable resource? No…
As with everything “sustainable” there is a catch to Helium.
Helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe. But down on Earth, it’s a finite resource, taking millions of years to produce in uranium decay deep in the Earth’s crust. Currently, it’s a by-product of natural gas drilling using fractional distillation to separate the two gases. The world’s helium reserves are found in only three countries: USA, Qatar and Algeria. As we’re using up helium unwisely, scientists believe we might have already used over 70% of Earth’s helium.
However, scientists specualte whether one day helium could be extracted from air. Currently, it costs around 10,000 times more to extract helium from air than it does from rocks and natural gas reserves. Others say we are lots of helium leakages, where helium could be recycled instead. For now, helium is still a non-renewable source…but who knows what the future holds.
What about hydrogen? Well for now it’s highly flammable, which was the initial problem with early lighter-than-air airships.