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Flights of Fancy – Part 4

Written on August 26, 2016

In the first three parts of this series I mused about what might be done if there was a industrial-scale solar power plant driving the production of carbon nanomaterials rather than just trying to generate power. I suggested that, with access to carbon-based nanofabrics we could create blimps of various sizes and purposes, and balloon-and-tether based power generation and docking facilities for airships. In this installment I make some guesses about what could be done with something larger than blimps – dirigibles.

Dirigibles are airships that have a rigid internal structure to their gas-filled envelopes. The most famous airship is, regretably, the Hindenberg, which caught fire, exploded and burned in 1937. The accident occured while docking, and it exploded because it was a massive construction filled with hydrogen, which, when combined with oxygen, burns incredibly rapidly. There is still debate as to why it burned, but with modern materials and practices we could reduce the risks substantially.

The rigid structure of a dirigible makes it much easier to mount gondolas and other equipment to the envelope, and can be used to support far larger structures than any blimp. A carbon-nanomaterial dirigible could, in theory, be enormous, much larger than the Hindenberg was, while also being far stronger. Modern electric motors could propel an airship into significant winds – which was one of the downfalls of the previous generation of airships.

Between super-strong materials and a rigid interal structure, it would now be possible to explore far more effective shapes for airships – including shapes that can sport vast arrays of photovolaic cells on the airship’s upper surface. It would be possible to create tremendous cargo dirigibles – possibly none large enough to rival containerships, but possibly large enough to start diverting some shipping from the transport truck fleets.

In my most excitable flights of fancy I imagine a fleet of vast airships that would work in the upper atmosphere, piloted by computers, that never land, but instead take hundreds of shipping containers from smaller, airship-shuttles, lifted on tethers. These main cargo dirigibles require some maintenance, but no fuel, no hydrogen, and travel with the wind around the clock and around the world. Imagine rows of airships encircling the globe at various convenient latitudes, taking on cargoes and handing them off again from shuttles, blown around the earth on the prevailing winds, and taking on any long-haul cargo. This would create market dynamics similar to the rather strange ones we see today, where fresh fish are shipped to Asia from North American fisheries, processed in Asia and shipped back more cheaply than they can be processed locally. I can imagine a world in which it is cheaper to ship something around the world than to send it a few hundred kilometers west (in the Northern Hemisphere).

Also imagine replacing cruise ships with dirigibles, just as they were in the early part of the 20th century, moving slowly relative to jets, but large and luxurious enough to attract tourists.

In part 5 of this series, I will expand on some of the ways that these materials could change the way we respond to natural disasters.

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