Unsplash / Krzysztof Niewolny

Zeppelins are lighter-than-air aircraft that get their lift from large gasbags. Early airships were filled with hydrogen, then later helium. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s rigid version of the airship had an internal framework that supported the vessel’s envelope. Rigid airships of many types are often referred to as Zeppelins, though that name specifically refers to airships by the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin company.

Zeppelins in history

Zeppelins were patented in Germany in 1895. First commercial passenger flights of Zeppelins began in 1910. By the beginning of World War I, commercial Zeppelin airline Deutsche Luftschiffarhrts-AG had carried 10,000 passengers. During World War I, Germany used Zeppelins as bombers and scouts. Germany’s airship industry was largely dismantled as part of the Treaty of Versailles bringing an end to World War I, but those restrictions were lifted in the mid-1920s. In the 1930s, a brief era of transatlantic Zeppelin flights began. The Graf Zeppelin and LZ 129 Hindenberg made regular flights from Germany to North America and Brazil.

The Hindenberg disaster

The golden era of passenger flights of Zeppelins ended in tragedy on May 6, 1937, in Manchester Township, New Jersey. On that date, the LZ 129 Hindenberg was destroyed in flames as it tried to dock at Naval Air Station Lakehurst. Thirty-five of the 97 people on board were killed. Understandably, Zeppelins were largely grounded.

Zeppelins of the future

Eight decades after the Hindenberg disaster, Zepplin flights may be poised to rise from the ashes. A paper in Energy Conversion and Management: X entitled “Using the jet stream for sustainable airship and balloon transportation of cargo and hydrogen” proposes the use of Zeppelins to deliver goods and hydrogen, not passengers, around the globe. 

Zeppelins would travel on the winds that circle the planet—the jet stream—at an average speed of over 100 miles per hour. The study’s authors calculate that a mile-and-a-half long airship could circle Earth in just 14 or 16  days while hauling 20,000 tons of cargo using minimal energy.

Airships ten times the size of the Hindenberg would do the work of cargo vessels that traverse the oceans now, but high in the atmosphere in much less time and with only a fraction of the pollution produced by ships.

The jet stream circles the planet from west to east, meaning Zeppelins could only fly in one direction. Imagine cargo-laden Zeppelins taking off from the United States and crossing the Atlantic and Europe at heights of 6 to 12 miles en route to Asia, then across the Pacific back to the United States.

Look! Green Zeppelins!

The paper in Energy Conversion and Management: X notes that traditional maritime shipping is a major contributor to carbon dioxide emissions. Twenty-three percent of CO2 emissions produced by humans flows from the transport sector. Airships’ exploitation of the jet stream could contribute to a reduction or slowing in the growth of CO2 emissions attributable to transportation of goods.

Considering the fate of the Hindenberg, technological innovation and safety are of paramount concern. The paper proposes that airships continue to be kept aloft by hydrogen, but with significant safety considerations including:

  • That vessels be unmanned
  • Loading and unloading would happen autonomously
  • Airship ports would be located in isolated areas
  • Airships would not be permitted to pass above large cities at low altitudes

Zeppelins have had a fascinating history through war and tragedy bringing their original golden era to a dramatic end. Now, it seems, their next golden era may also be a green one.  And to the extent that the future involves the development of an alternative hydrogen-based economy, Zeppelin-based transport could play a significant role in efficient and effective transportation of that essential source of energy.