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.
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.
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.