The legend is that Keith Moon, drummer for the rock band The Who, saw a certain four-piece blues ensemble in 1967 and said, “These guys are going to go over like a lead Zeppelin.”. As it happened, Led Zeppelin went on to sell more than a few records over the ensuing decade, but the band’s namesake lighter-than-air airships that had once dotted skies over Europe and the U.S. disappeared into history books and newsreels.
Nearly 80 years have passed since a major new airship has come to market, but if Google founder Sergey Brin has his way there may be a low-emission, climate-friendly version floating over your head in the not-too-distant future. (1)
Brin is the primary funder of LTA Research, a company focused on bringing a century of materials and computer science progress and a Silicon Valley-style of innovation to a method of travel that became nothing more than a novelty before World War II.
And no, there will not be another Hindenburg-type disaster. After that tragedy, ultra-flammable hydrogen was replaced by inert helium in all dirigibles.
Replacing metal structures with lightweight carbon fiber, monitoring helium levels with LIDAR, and controlling multiple propellors positioned around the fuselage with computer guidance are just a few of the improvements modern technology allows. (2)
A different type of air travel
The romance of airships is undeniable. In the 1930s, a typical two-story gondola included a cocktail lounge, a writing and reading room, a dining room with white tablecloths and a full kitchen. The private passenger cabins were small, but the bunk beds with fresh linens would be an upgrade to even the swankiest first-class seat on a modern airline. And, because airships flew at low altitudes, the windows of the gondola opened and allowed fresh air in when the weather was fine. In addition, because the motors were mounted well away from the gondola, engine noise was minimal.
But the pure luxury of cruising quietly in the sky aside, the most immediate case for modern airships is their tiny carbon footprint. Because airships are kept aloft by huge bladders full of lighter-than-air gas, they do not require energy to fly. That means that the motors operate much more efficiently and can be powered by solar and hydrogen fuel cells or other renewables. And because they stay aloft on their own and sip fuel slowly, they can travel very long distances without landing or refueling. Their ability to take off and land vertically lets them access both remote areas and more dense urban spaces without the need for airport infrastructure.
With a range far beyond helicopters and the ability to moor in places without infrastructure, LTA Research is positioning modern airships as a significant tool for humanitarian aid. (3) According to their website, “If runways, roads, and ports are damaged, LTA’s airships can still deliver what communities need. If cellphone towers are knocked out, airships can hover and provide service.”
LTA’s first ship, the 400-foot-long Pathfinder One, took a five-minute test flight inside its hangar at Moffett Field outside Mountain View, California on May 12. (4) The crew expects to embark on test flights around the open area in the next couple of months, and the ship will then travel to Akron, Ohio, where it’ll be housed at the Goodyear Airdock. The next time the members of Led Zeppelin visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, they can probably catch a 40-mile lift for a visit.
- Sergey Brin’s Revolutionary $19 Airship, IEEE Spectrum
- Sergey Brin Has a Secret Plan to Put Airships Back in the Skies
- Airship technology for air connectivity and humanitarian aid in the Caribbean and the Pacific, UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific
- FAQ, LTA Research
Is it time to start putting some kind of oil back in the ground?
Mankind has been pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in ever-increasing amounts since the advent of the industrial revolution. To reduce carbon’s effect on the climate, we’re going to need to stop putting more in, but we also need to start taking some out.
Many technology companies are exploring new ways to capture carbon from the atmosphere and bury it where it can’t reenter the atmosphere. But startup CHARM is gaining attention by using one of our oldest and most important industries to pull carbon from the air: Agriculture.
Every year, American farmers are left with around 100 million tons of stover: the husks, stalks and silk of the corn plant that isn’t used for food. Although some of that material is plowed back into the farmland to enhance the soil, most of it is waste. That stover is often burned or just left to decompose. Both processes send carbon into the atmosphere. (1)
Instead, CHARM is putting stover and other waste biomass into a pyrolizer, a type of high-heat oven that breaks down the matter into bio-oil, bio-gas and bio-char. The char can be reintegrated into cropland, and the biogas is used to run the pyrolizer, so the process is largely self-fueling, aside from some diesel used to start the process. The bio-oil contains acids, sugars, water and a whopping 42 percent carbon. The carbon-rich sludge, which looks much like crude oil, is then injected into waste disposal wells administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—essentially refilling the same rock formations that held crude oil for hundreds of millions of years. (2)
Although CHARM was only founded in 2018, its process and technology have attracted the attention of several elite companies in Silicon Valley. Stripe was the first to sign a contract, and Microsoft followed after a thorough evaluation of the science and process. In May of this year, Frontier, a coalition that includes Alphabet, Meta and other tech giants, signed a $53 million contract. Even banking company JP Morgan Chase has agreed to pay to remove 29,000 metric tons of carbon over five years.
The Weekly Sunsong
Since it’s a week filled with airships, here’s Led Zeppelin’s sunniest song: the Ocean