Written on August 19, 2016
In Part 1 of this series I lay out the idea of a really large solar power installation which, instead of generating electricity for export, uses the power and heat for creating carbon nanowires, nanotubes and carbon-neutral synthetic fuels.
In Part 2, I am going to discuss a few products that are possible with these materials.
Carbon is very strong for it’s weight, and can be woven into lots of different materials – mostly very strong fabrics, and solids when combined with glue. That is with irregular, randomly assembled carbon fibre. Carbon nanotubes are extremely fine tubes of carbon perfectly arranged in long, regular chains. These are vastly stronger than carbon fibre, because of their shape and the molecular bonds – these bonds require a great deal of energy to create – that’s why they are energy-intensive to make. They also require tremedous energy to break. Carbon nanowires are strings of carbon one atom wide – orders of magnatude smaller than any other material, and hugely strong. With filaments like carbon nanotubes and nanowires, you can create massively strong cables and fabrics that are also lighter than anything else we create.
So what do we do with light, strong fabrics and cables? Well, anything that we currently make with carbon fibre is an obvious candidate, like bicycle frames, auto parts and fighter jets. These bind carbon fibre in glues and resins, because the carbon fibre is prone to destruction with any kind of abrasion, and because, compared to nano-materials, they are disorganized, they have limited lifespans, stretching out and breaking down over time. What I think are the killer applications for these materials are blimps, balloons, dirigibles and tethers.
I am going to take these applications one at a time over the course of this series, and then posit some specifics that I think are interesting ways that it would change the lives of everyone, everywhere. As an aside, changing the lives of everyone, everywhere is what science fiction is based on, but in business is called disruption, which puts some entities out of business and creates opportunities for others.
A blimp is a non-rigid airship. They are inflated by a gas of some kind which is lighter than air, so they rise, and they don’t have anything inside the envelope to provide extra structure. A relatively small pod, called a gondola, with engines and steering mechanisms is attached to the bottom of a blimp.
Carbon nanomaterials can be used to build blimps that are much lighter than previously possible. The maximum size of a blimp is set by how much pressure they can contain, so blimps can get bigger using carbon materials, and they bigger they are, the more they can lift. Using super-strong nanomaterials for gondolas will help them increase their size too.
The big issue with blimps and other lighter-than-air aircraft is the choice of gas used to fill them. There are really only two choices – hydrogen and helium. Helium is much, much heavier than hydrogen, it is expensive and hard to find and replace. However, helium doesn’t explode, so it is much preferred at the moment. Hydrogen can be created with electricity and water, so any industrial-scale solar installation with a water source can generate any amount of hydrogen for free. The “no-explody” part of blimps is largely an engineering problem – there will be some risk, but it can be minimized.
So what do you do with larger, lighter blimps? Today they are used to things like surveillance – they can cover their upper surfaces with solar panels, use lightweight, high powered electric fans and they can stay up for a long, long time. Remotely or robotically piloted blimps could be made to stay up all the time. They are being sold right now to hover at 80,000 feet and watch over battlefields or borders, but they could do much, much more. With a robotic pilot they can present much lower risk than human pilots, and they can more effectively do battle with they great enemy of airships – the wind.
A blimp, even a really large one, is not well-suited to bulk cargo because of the limits to their size, but they could do anything a helicopter can do, and do it more safely. When a blimp loses power, it doesn’t fall out of the sky. That means that you could use blimps as cranes in remote areas, in urban areas, for search and rescue, and for sightseeing. They are limited in speed because of air resistance, but they could be made more streamlined with the stronger materials, and if we are able to make more powerful electric motors they could conceivably be able to navigate in extreme conditions.
Because they can use solar power to produce lifting gas and propulsion, it could be possible to ship a blimp deflated, set up its solar panels next to a water source, and within a relatively short period of time it could self-inflate and be ready to deploy. Getting high-value, low-volume cargo like medicine to a remote area could be made much easier with a cargo vessel that can travel day and night without needing to refuel. The surveillance-style drone blimps could also act as replacement communications infrastructure in the event of natural disasters, acting like a satellite relay for much lower-power transmitters, even arranging in self-organizing and self-healing swarms to provide cell phone coverage after all of the cell towers have been destroyed or disabled.
Imagine a remote village in Nunavut has a bear break into the pharmacy and destroy all of the medicine for a community. A teaching hospital in Saskatoon could assemble the necessary medicines in a blimp-ready cargo pod, take it to the roof in time to be picked up by a robotic blimp sent from Regina only hours after the call for medicine, and it could be in town within a couple of days, even in difficult or impossible conditions for a heavier-than-air aircraft.
Part three of this series will be discussing balloons and tethers.
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