H2 Clipper Airship Could Make Airborne Hydrogen Great Again

H2 Clipper 16 photos
Photo: H2 Clipper
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If you look up at the sky these days, all you’ll see are airplanes, helicopters and drones. Depending on a variety of factors, including location and state of mind, you might also see the Goodyear blimp flying about, or some alien spacecraft. What you will not see are full-fledged airships, carrying people to their destination in style and slow enough for them to be able to enjoy the trip and scenery from above.
Airships are a breed of machines from a time long gone. Back in the early days of aviation, they came as a sort of a weird mix between balloons (they looked like that, only longer) and the ships you see sailing on seas. Tracing their roots to the late 1800s, they were simple and stylish, and would have probably lived on to our day, despite the rise of jet aircraft, had it not been for that tragic event history recorded as the Hindenburg disaster.

Built in pre-war Germany as the largest aircraft to be made back then, the Hindenburg class of airships, which comprised the Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin, were capable of carrying some 50 passengers and 40 crew to trans-Atlantic distances, and in utter luxury even by today’s standards.

The airships used four Daimler-Benz engines to gain forward motion, but stayed afloat not thanks to wings and propellers, but a giant bag of cotton stretched over aluminum alloy frames. Inside the cotton bag there were 16 gas cells filled with hydrogen. It was the hydrogen, which is lighter than air, that allowed the airship to gain altitude, and it was hydrogen that doomed the Hindenburg that fateful spring day in 1937.

That May day, as the Hindenburg was coming in to land at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in the U.S., the hydrogen, which is also very flammable when mixed with air, ignited due to reasons that are still to be fully and clearly determined. It took the airship about half a minute to completely disappear from this world, taking with it 36 passengers and 61 crew, but also the dream of more airships’ in the sky.

H2 Clipper airship
Photo: H2 Clipper
The lesson to be learned here is that using so much hydrogen in one place, surrounded by flammable materials, could be a very bad idea. And the industry learned, so the few blimps, dirigibles, and other types of airships now use the much more harmless helium instead.

But a company called H2 Clipper wants to bring hydrogen back in the air. It will do so not only as a means to generate lift, but also in the form a type of fuel that needs to be transported from where it’s made to where it’s needed.

Presently, hydrogen is used to generate electricity and production of certain other goods, like fertilizer, but it’s getting increased attention as a fuel source for transportation as well. For it to get to where it’s needed, hydrogen is moved through a variety of means, including ships, trains, pipes, and trucks.

An airship would be faster and a lot cheaper to use than any of the above. At least that’s what California-based startup H2 Clipper said when it presented its airship concept in the summer of last year.

H2 Clipper airship
Photo: H2 Clipper
In numbers we can all understand, at $0.32 per ton per mile an airship would be 70 percent less expensive to use than air freight. The proposed airship design would also be up to ten times faster than traditional terrestrial and maritime means of transport, as the thing is designed to move at speeds of 150 mph (241 kph).

It could also carry two times more payload and ten times more volume than everyday freighters, to a (record) total of over 400,000 pounds (150,000 kg). The total distance the H2 Clipper airship could cover in a single outing is over 6,000 miles (9,600 km).

The idea is described by the company as the “world's first point-to-point hydrogen delivery system, the pipeline-in-the-sky.” Sadly, aside from the above capabilities, we do not know much at this point about the materials that will be used for making it, what type of engines will power it (we do know they’ll run on the same hydrogen the airship will transport), exact dimensions, and so on.

H2 Clipper is presently on track to finish the design of the airship. That should be ready sometime this year, and it will be followed in 2024 by the actual prototype build. The first flight of the thing is for now scheduled for 2029, with the first H2 Clipper expected to become operational sometime in 2029.

Price and effectiveness merits aside, it remains to be seen if this idea of making airborne hydrogen great again will be seen as a good one by regulators and other parties interested in not seeing the Hindenburg disaster happening all over again.

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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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