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Canada Transportation Technology

Canadian Company Plans Solar-Powered Heavier-Than-Air Airships 218

Posted by timothy
from the sir-we're-nearly-out-of-buzzwords dept.
savuporo writes "By crossing airships with airplanes, Solar Ship is planning to build a craft that can carry heavy loads long distances with a tiny carbon footprint. Filled with helium, they soak up rays from the sun to provide the energy for forward motion and fulfill its original design challenge – carry 1,000 kilograms (2,205 lbs) of payload 1,000 kilometers (621.4 miles). The craft is heavier than air, and uses a combination of helium filling its interior and its lifting body delta wing shape to stay airborne. Solar Ship shows plans for a range of different size craft for different duties."
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Canadian Company Plans Solar-Powered Heavier-Than-Air Airships

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  • Iran recentyl claimed to have discovered massive helium reserves:

    http://www.google.com/search?q=iran+helium+reserve&site=universal&tbs=cdr%3A1&cd_min=9%2F1%2F2011&cd_max= [google.com]

    Allegedly the estimate is 10 billion cubic meters. That was in September, but there's still no mention in major Western media.

    • Does anyone in the major Western media believe the claim? Iran isn't exactly trustworthy, and OPEC nations have a history of exagerating oil reserves.
  • If the aircraft needs no fuel to stay aloft what is placing the limit on the range? At some point it would have to come down of course but why couldn't it stay up for 10,000 km instead of just 1000 km?

    Lifting body aircraft with lighter than air gas to assist in lift has been tried before unsuccessfully. This is different in using solar power to drive the engines. With the low density in solar power I find it difficult to believe solar power is enough to keep the aircraft aloft. Perhaps that is where the

    • by Stoutlimb (143245)

      I'm assuming that the range is based on how far the airship can travel before the sun goes down, assuming it launches in the morning. For the hybrid versions, I imagine it's a combination of day travel and fuel capacity. For instance at 60km/h, the Caracal has a 500km range. That means about 8.3 hours of flight time, which is reasonable considering some days may be cloudy.

    • by mosb1000 (710161)

      Perhaps it can only travel 1000km in a day? If you are looking at a 10 hour day, that would be a speed of 100km/h.

      Photovoltaics are much lighter than you seem to think, many solar powered aircraft have been built. And a helium filled flying wing would have plenty of room for them.

      • by TheLink (130905)
        Having an airship travel 1000km isn't that difficult, the problem is making sure that enough of the 1000km it travels is in the desired direction and done within the desired time ;).
    • by tsotha (720379)

      Lifting body aircraft with lighter than air gas to assist in lift has been tried before unsuccessfully.

      It's been done several times successfully, at least from an engineering standpoint. The problem with airships is more financial than technical.

    • by whois (27479)

      My guess is that helium containment is hard for balloons and the limited range is caused by helium loss?

      http://www.rcgroups.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-265008.html [rcgroups.com]

      Helium atom's are very small giving them a diffusion rate through solids that's 3x that of air.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helium [wikipedia.org]

      The other factor is, all helium we currently have is produced through alpha particle emissions due to radioactive decay. This is a non-renewable and finite resource that if exploited would run out long before we coo

  • Depending on how the buoyancy compares to loaded weight, deadheading might be impossible. You'll have to carry huge concrete blocks on the return trip just to keep from launching yourself into space. This could lead to very low one way costs for cargo transport between certain locations.
    • Cheaper I think to transport water. Collapseable containers, easier to fill, and no worry about disposing of the bricks piling up at the loading bay.
  • by Required Snark (1702878) on Sunday October 23, 2011 @02:57AM (#37808394)
    This idea seems familiar...

    http://www.johnmcphee.com/deltoid.htm [johnmcphee.com]

    The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed tells the fascinating story of the dream of a completely new aircraft, a hybrid of the airplane and the rigid airship--huge, wingless, moving slowly through the lower sky. It flies aerodynamically. It floats aerostatically. It carries bridges, buildings, fleets of trucks. It is a flying warehouse. It eliminates the need for roads, railroads, prepared harbors. Or so goes the dream. With an arching back and a deep belly, it looks like a tremendous pumpkin seed.

  • by Colin Smith (2679) on Sunday October 23, 2011 @04:12AM (#37808548)

    http://www.hybridairvehicles.com/ [hybridairvehicles.com]

    The US military is buying half a billion dollars worth of kit from them... Or rather through Northrop Grumman.

    http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/video-northrop-grumman-wins-race-to-revive-hybrid-airships-with-517-million-order-343259/ [flightglobal.com]
     

    • by dkf (304284)

      The US military is buying half a billion dollars worth of kit from them... Or rather through Northrop Grumman.

      So that would be $500k's worth if bought direct?

  • by Konster (252488)

    Just clone Al Gore.

    There's your inexhaustible supply of hot air right there.

  • Would it possible to build something like this held up by the buoyancy of hot air rather than helium?

    With the right kind of insulating materials in the envelope, heat loss could be controlled. There might also be a way of using solar power to heat the air.

    • by Arlet (29997)

      There might also be a way of using solar power to heat the air.

      Paint it black ?

    • by vlm (69642)

      Would it possible to build something like this held up by the buoyancy of hot air rather than helium?

      Depends on how far you're willing to stretch "like this"

      http://www.solar-balloons.com/ [solar-balloons.com]

  • Isn't there a helium shortage?
  • A stupid concept... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by rgbatduke (1231380) <rgb@NospAM.phy.duke.edu> on Sunday October 23, 2011 @09:17AM (#37809398) Homepage
    ...although one already explored by SF authors such as Norman Spinrad in Songs from the Stars. 1000 kg weighs 2200 pounds and is basically the load of a pickup truck. By far the easiest way and cheapest way to get a load 1000 km is to build a solar powered electric railroad, especially if you don't care how fast it gets there at first. Of course, with solar collectors on the ground, there is basically no practical limit to the power you can deliver per kilogram and consequently one can get the load to destination at very high speeds with a new design.

    The difficulties with a solar powered helium dirigible are manifold and have already been pointed out -- finite supply of helium, helium needed for kids' balloons and (eventually, perhaps) as thermonuclear fuel (at which time we'll kick ourselves for wasting it for decades in kids' balloons), absolutely impossible to keep sun-warmed helium inside any sort of bag. Weather and wind make the transportation dangerous or impossible (given the wimpy peak power likely to be available to move the bag -- probably inadequate to overcome even a very modest headwind). The danger of 1000 kg loads being dropped on people's heads if weather conditions exceed the limited capacity of robot brains to solve weather problems and the lifter breaks up, pops, catastrophically fails.

    It isn't quite inconceivable that one could build a solar-solar system -- a solar balloon for lift, solar power for "thrust" -- although again I think that the force of wind pressure instantly will exceed the peak thrust of any onboard solar system on even a very sunny, nearly still day. To lift a metric ton you'll need a rather large balloon, so very small overpressure on the upwind side will exert a huge force downwind. And you'll still have the problems with weather, with the fact that the sun doesn't shine at night and you can't carry batteries or the whole design becomes laughably impossible, not marginally feasible (either one, Helium or hot air).

    But rail? Piece of cake. Hell, you could probably deliver a steady stream of pickup truck sized loads driven by solar collectors along the roadway -- 70-100 watts per square meter of collector, plenty of room for 1000 watts per meter of actual track along the 1000 km route. In fact, the track (with a mere 12 meter wide roadway, 2 meters of which is track and vehicle) will generate anywhere from 100s of megawatts to a gigawatt of power on any reasonably sunny day. Assuming 10 kW per metric ton to move payload at 100 km/hour or better, one can move anywhere from a minimum of 10,000 metric tons up to a maximum of 100,000 metric tons per 10 hours of useable daylight day, for the amortized capital cost of the solar powered roadway. (Don't whack the math too much, these are all estimates and YMMV). The cost of the solar electrification is currently a bit over $1/watt, installation and collection will double that. Call it a $5 billion project (the cost of a couple of weeks in Iraq), build it on an existing rail corridor between (say) Detroit and Chicago square in the heart of the industrial heartland. If one charges $10/ton for transport (pretty cheap, one would think) it grosses close to $1 million/day running the rail at capacity, $300 million a year, payback of the initial investment in 15-20 years.

    As is so frequently the case in solar projects, this is maddeningly close but not quite a cigar. For a billion dollar investment it would be a no brainer -- payback in 3 years (more likely 5 with operating costs), pure profit thereafter. For 2 or 3 billion dollars it is attractive -- an effective yield of maybe 5-10% on investment in the long run. For 5 it is right down there at 1-3% yield, implying a fairly long period to wait for a not-too-large ROI, plenty of risk. Drop the cost of solar cells by one more factor of two and it will happen all by itself. Drop it by a factor of four or more, which is entirely plausible given sufficient volume in the market (and this project alone would consume
    • Sorry but your comments show a fair amount of ignorance of the country where this aircraft would operate, and the reasons why it is even being thought of. It's too bad that you spent so much time looking up numbers like ROI that simply don't apply here.

      To build a solar-powered railway as you put it, that would reach the places in Canada that such an aircraft of this type would reach, would cost many billions of dollars more than the development of this aircraft would. Even worse, you cannot actually build

    • by urusan (1755332)

      I think you're not accounting for a lot of important factors in the cost.

      Even without accounting for the new technology, such a rail system would realistically cost in the tens of billions. Consider the San Fransisco-Anaheim segment of the California High-Speed Rail project, which was initially estimated to cost around $42.6 billion. It covers a bit less than twice the distance between Chicago and Detroit, so even a more conventional Chicago-Detroit railroad would probably cost a good percentage of that, no

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