Airships have received a lot of attention in recent years, for both the transport of passengers and goods. They are more economical and silent than airplanes, and they are still considerably faster than most means of transportation over land or water. That said, zeppelins are faced with some problems.
To stay afloat they use helium, a non-renewable gas becoming scarce. Moreover, because of their round shape and insignificant weight they are hard to manage when they are on the ground. They also need a significant amount of parking space, making the hangars more expensive than the airships themselves.
Lieven Standaert, a Belgian engineer, architect and science teacher, plans to build a zeppelin that holds none of those disadvantages. His Aeromodeller II is inspired by the zeppelin of the same name built in 1970 by his compatriot, the legendary artist Panamarenko.
Panamarenko is devoted to building fantastic flying machines that have never flown (although he maintains that they do). Lieven Standaert, on the other hand, is determined to actually fly his dream machine. An exhibition currently running in Antwerp is largely dedicated to the low-tech and low-cost techniques to develop this “yacht of the 21st century”.
Enjoy the view
The Aeromodeller II floats not on helium but on hydrogen, which has a dual function as fuel for the engines. The hydrogen is generated on board, while the ship hovers in the air and drops anchor at a height of 50 to 100 metres. This happens by means of a cable, similar to that of a kite.
The zeppelin inverts its propellers, which then serve as windmills. They deliver the necessary energy to split water (coming from the ballast tanks and replenished by rain) into hydrogen and oxygen. Six hours of wind energy accumulate enough fuel for one hour of flying.
This means that the airship has to “rest” regularly to charge its “batteries” – just like a living creature. This would be the perfect moment to slide open the large windows, take a seat on the terrace and enjoy the sun and the view.
Standaert’s solution to the ground manageability problem and the need for a specially designed airport and energy infrastructure is rather radical: he wants to keep his zeppelin in the air. Because the Aeromodeller II generates its own energy, it never has to land.
This implies that the airship should be regarded as a houseboat or stray ship and not as an alternative to a scheduled flight. The Aeromodeller II is designed for stability and not for speed. While other airships can attain speeds of up to 150 km/h (93mph), the Aeromodeller with its two 70 kilowatt engines will only reach speeds of about 80 km/h (50mph).
Lieven Standaert: “Airships are slow. You don’t design a good vehicle starting from its weaknesses. Forget speed. This thing can never be a good speedboat. It is a sailing ship. Make it storm proof. Make it seaworthy. We love sailing ships, not for their speed or efficiency, but because of the way of travelling. A zeppelin can be worthwhile in a similar fashion. You can get on board with a backpack full of biscuits and canned soup and just take off, without the need for petrol stations or anything. You can re-appear two years later, coming from the other direction…”
Floating around in a zeppelin for a couple of years will not appeal to everybody, whether the airship has a sun terrace or not. What Standaert desires to accomplish with his project is to promote hydrogen as a clean fuel. A zeppelin is better suited for that than a car:
“Cars are not the best vehicle to demonstrate the potential of hydrogen. BMW has a car on display in Brussels that drives on hydrogen. But as long as we have not 1,000 hydrogen stations across Europe this car cannot drive anywhere. And these hydrogen stations will only appear when everybody is convinced that hydrogen is the best substitute to gasoline.”
“My airship has to become a symbol, a flagship for cleaner energy technology. Because it generates its own energy, it needs no new energy infrastructure. Because it does this by means of wind energy, it is a real zero-emission vehicle. And the space required for the storage of hydrogen, the most important practical problem for the use of hydrogen in cars, is not a problem in a zeppelin of 85 meters either.”
Hydrogen and airships are not a self-evident combination. Lieven Standaert: “Zeppelins bear a historical trauma. In 1937 the Hindenburg burned down and since then all airships are filled with non flammable helium. But, if we can develop safe hydrogen cars, we can develop safe hydrogen zeppelins. There are still engineers speculating on how the fire started in the Hindenburg. Don’t speculate, perform the tests.”
“Nobody has published anything on experiments with hydrogen balloons in the last 50 years. Adisson Bain, a NASA-engineer, is one of the authorities on the Hindenburg disaster. His experiments consist of fire experiments on pieces of skin measuring 10 by 10 centimetres. But there is no way you can scale down fire experiments like that, a match does not burn in a similar fashion as a forest. I have done these experiments on a reasonable scale, and the results have convinced me that I can build a safe ship.”
Standaert seems to be convinced that he can realise this airship, while many of these projects have never gotten further than paper or scale models.
Lieven Standaert: “Zeppelins are the ultimate castles in the air, every few years a concept for another type of airship comes along. Some 5 years ago it was the Cargolifter, a gigantic project in Germany to design a zeppelin with a length of 250 metres. The idea was to pick up anything that was too large for conventional road transport and put it down 500 kilometres further.”
“In Germany zeppelins are still the stuff of legends, so they received serious funding. They built a huge hangar and they put 80 engineers in there to find out how to realise this thing. But while the engineers were calculating, they passed their deadline by 2 years, they had enormous overheads, and they went broke. The hangar was built, and it is the largest one in Europe. The ship, however, was never realized.”
How will Standaert avoid a similar scenario?
“From the start, my ship was designed to be built with low-tech and low-cost building materials. Conventional airships have the form of a cigar, which is realised by overpressure inside the ship. This enables a light construction and a fast aerodynamic shape, aimed at speed. However, this kind of construction is very vulnerable, because the skin is an essential part of the construction.”
“If there is a leak, the ship loses overpressure suddenly, it loses its shape and it loses all control. And with a round belly like this, a zeppelin is completely unmanageable on the ground: several airships were damaged irreparably because a blast of wind smashed them against the hangar.”
“My design does not need overpressure to preserve a stable form, which means that the forces on the skin become much smaller. The Aeromodeller has a wide frame which absorbs these bending forces. This makes the zeppelin heavier and slower than other airships, but it also makes it sturdier, and much easier and cheaper to build. You don’t need a woven skin material. A light thermoplastic foil will suffice.
“If you want to accomplish such a high-flying project, you have to think very practical. An important part of the exhibition deals with the question of how to build this thing with 3 people, cheap materials and a flat-iron.”
“The full explanation is a bit more complex, of course, but this is the essence. Focus on the design to build a functioning prototype with modest means. Invest your money in the prototype, not in a hangar. Keep your overheads low, so that you can carry out experiments. Make sure you don’t need scaffolding or high cranes, but design it so that you can build it on ground level. And then, technologically speaking, this is just a gigantic, ultralight tent. Then you have something that you can rig up for the price of a large house.”
All images © Lieven Standaert
Scale models, drawings, plans and test results of the Aeromodeller II are on display in Antwerp, Belgium, until the end of February (find more information here). The website of Lieven Standaert has more illustrations of the concept and the building techniques. The texts are in Dutch, but will be translated into English .