16. Future sustainable transport based on the past
After showing how tourists can behave more environmental friendly while traveling and how hotels can operate more sustainable, it is time to look at transport. Most environmentalists are opposed long distance travel for fun. But what if we can make long distance travel more sustainable?
16.1 Sailing around the world
To allow future sustainable transport to evolve, we might have to look into the past for solutions such as sailing. Sailing has been around for millennia and belongs to some of the most environmentally-friendly forms of transport. Greta Thunberg has already embraced sailing to travel around the world, but she’s not the only one. The Sail to the Cop initiative also tries to promote alternative transport ways for tourism, including sailing. Yoga Sailing Holidays has found a different niche in tourism. They sell yoga wellness tours by sailing boat during which they promote a more relaxed and healthy lifestyle with eye for the environment. And Ragga Muffin Tours in Belize already organizes for many years sustainable snorkel tours with sailing boats.
The Dutch company Fair Ferry last year offered their first sustainable trip between Rotterdam and London and this year (2020) they’re looking to expand on new routes. At Fair Ferry, they work with classic reliable sailboats, including a trawler, a clipper, a whaler, and even a warship. They believe and with reason, that the journey should be every bit as memorable and enjoyable as the destination itself!
Meanwhile the British travel company VoyageVert goes a step further. The company is founded by marine captain and engineer, Ross Porter, who ran a yacht delivery company. The number of requests he received from people looking to hitch a ride, told him that there could be a solution to sustainable, long-distance travel already on the horizon. VoyageVert wants to bring passenger transport by sailboat back into the 21st century. For this, they will combine modern technology, top-end design, speed, comfort, and plenty of passion for our blue planet. VoyageVert’s long-term vision is a fleet of sailboat ferries each transporting hundreds of passengers, servicing a network of routes all across the globe. Call them cruise ships operating under wind power, with sustainably-powered auxiliary engines. These vessels might become the only sustainable option for long-distance transoceanic travel. It is an option that offers travelers time for resting and relaxation, uplifting nature connection, adventure, and unforgettable life experiences.
It’s a great idea, especially since my dream as a little boy was to build my own sailboat and travel around the world. Here is what Mark Twain said about sailing:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover“.
But, no matter how much we romanticize being on board of a sailboat, this way of traveling will not appeal to everyone. Some people quickly get seasick, while others don’t want to spend a long time on a relatively small place. One of the biggest disadvantages of crossing the oceans by sailboat will continue to be the amount of time it takes. In the future this might be partly solved by hybrid ships, using sails, wind, solar power, or even hydrogen fuel produced from seawater. The results from several studies about converting seawater into hydrogen fuel are in early stages, but promising. Still, the resistance of the water will always reduce the speed of boats compared to air travel.
So if sailing is too slow and flying has currently the biggest negative impact on our climate, what if we can drastically decrease this impact? What if I told you that this is already possible? Or at least, technically speaking it is already possible to fly from A to B at the fraction of the CO2 emission from currently used airplanes. No, this environmental friendly flying object isn’t a UFO, but a simple, old fashioned airship. At first, this might sound a bit odd and unattractive, but please read on and then give this form of sustainable transport some more thought. There are surely advantages to the use of modern airships.
16.2 The best of both worlds: airships
“Airship” is a term for all motorized lighter-than-air craft, including blimps (which have inflatable air compartments) and zeppelins (which have rigid ones). Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a German military officer, developed the first rigid-framed airships in the late 1800s. He had observed hot-air balloons in the United States during the Civil War, according to Airships.net. He built his first airship, LZ-1, in 1899 and it took flight in 1900, three years before the Wright Brothers made their famous flight. Over time, Zeppelin became synonymous for all rigid airships. In the early 20th centuries airships were seen as the most attractive form of air travel, due to their relative cost-effectiveness and longer range. They also played an important role as military aircraft and were used for bombings in World War I.
The LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin258 was a German passenger-carrying, hydrogen-filled rigid airship. It made 590 flights totaling almost 1.7 million kilometers (over 1 million miles) between 1928 and 1937. The Graf Zeppelin was operated by a crew of 36 and could carry 24 passengers. It was the longest and largest airship in the world when it was built. It made the first circumnavigation of the world by airship. Starting from October 1928 it offered the first commercial transatlantic passenger flight service ever. By the late 1930s, luxury airships frequently transferred wealthy passengers across the Atlantic Ocean and were considered a technological marvel.
In March 1936 the LZ-129 the Hindenburg made its maiden flight. It was the biggest commercial airship ever built, and at the time, the most technologically advanced. It was 245 meters (803.8 feet) in length and 41.2 m (135.1 feet) in diameter. It was more than three times larger than a Boeing 747 and four times the size of the Goodyear Blimp. It could reach cruising speeds of 122 km/h (76 mph) and a maximum speed of 135 km/h (84 mph). The frame was built of duralumin, an aluminum alloy. The Hindenburg was wider than other airships, which made it more stable. Four engines powered the Hindenburg.
The Hindenburg featured 72 passenger beds in heated cabins, a silk-wallpapered dining room, a lounge, a writing room, a bar, a smoking room, and promenades with windows that could be opened in-flight. The furniture was designed using light-weight aluminum. Special precautions were taken to ensure that the smoking room was safe, including a double-door airlock to keep hydrogen from entering, according to the American Enterprise Institute. Sixteen gas cells made from gelatinized cotton kept the Hindenburg aloft. These cells were designed to be filled with helium, which was known to be safer than hydrogen because it is non-flammable. However, the helium was very expensive, required more operators, and reduced the payload. And maybe most importantly, only the United States and the Soviet Union had helium at the time. The Hindenburg flew 63 times, primarily from Germany to North and South America until May 6, 1937. On this fatal day, the explosion of the Hindenburg filled the sky above Lakehurst, New Jersey with smoke and fire. It wasn’t the worst airship accident, and 62 out of 97 people on board of the Hindenburg survived the explosion. Still it was perhaps the most dramatic crash in history. This was likely because it was the first massive technological disaster caught on live film. The scene and live comments became embedded in the public’s consciousness. At the time, the Hindenburg was supposed to be ushering in a new age of airship travel, but instead, it caused airship travel to become a pariah, an unpopular outsider.
Maybe airship travel would have been phased out anyway due to improvements in airplane technology which allowed for much shorter travel times. But what if airships were given a fair chance to develop and compete with passenger airplanes?
16.3 Climate change, sustainable transport and airships
Climate change might be giving airships this new chance to develop more and become competitive with regard to airplanes. Of course, airships will never be as fast as planes, but they do have other advantages. Their two biggest advances compare to airplanes are that they don’t need airstrips and are better for the environment. The advantages of airships compared to regular ships are that they’re faster and can reach almost everywhere, either on land or water. Currently, several companies around the world are in the process of building new improved airships. Those companies are working on maximizing the advantages and minimizing the disadvantages (drag) of airships compare to the original designs. So far it seems that the biggest market for those new airships lies with the transport of cargo, but there might be a tourism niche as well.
Zeppelin NT has already been organizing sightseeing flights in Europe for many years but Euro Airship wants to take these sightseeing flights a step further. What about having a wine with your partner sitting next to a big panoramic window overlooking the rugged Andean Mountains, the isolated Arctic, or a busy African Savanna? I would happily sign up for a holiday like that with the Airlander 10 zeppelin. The fast modern western lifestyle is wearing people down and more and more people are looking at ways to slow down a bit. Traveling comfortably and relaxed by airship might just fit in. Traveling by airship might even be the solution to the travel dilemma of my friend who wanted to go to the Galapagos. She was worried that the carbon footprint of her flight might flood these islands. In the near future a solar powered zeppelin could bring her in under ten hours from the mainland of Ecuador to the Galapagos Islands.
XII- Additional interesting articles about airships:
Flying Whales, New designs in Science, The Week, The Economist about commercial travel, Tech Radar, The Daily Sabah, Wired about Helium, Popsci about Helium shortage, or maybe no helium shortage in Thought and the disadvantages of helium used in Airships. Maybe in the future, we can combine Helium, hot air, and water?
16.4 Electric airplanes
For those among us who can’t slow down, or don’t like sailing and traveling by airship, there might soon be another reinvented environmentally friendly option of sustainable transport available: electric planes.
On August 9, 1884, the La France Army Airship completed a flight that covered 8 km in 23 minutes. This non-rigid airship was electric-powered with a 435 kg (959 lb) zinc-chlorine flow battery. It was the first full round trip flight with a landing on the starting point. The La France made in total seven flights, but after that, the France government lost interest and the idea of an electric engine went into the closet.
It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that electric motors started to make a slow comeback. Robert Boucher pioneered this comeback by building a couple of pilotless solar-powered aircrafts under contracts with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In 1979, the late Paul MacCready began working with Boucher. MacCready’s company, AeroVironment built the unmanned Solar Challenger, whose two tandem wings were covered with more than 16,000 solar cells, while Boucher’s company, Astro Flight, supplied the five-horsepower motor. The Solar Challenger had no batteries; it collected sufficient energy from sunlight—4,400 watts—to take off, climb to 14,000 feet, and cruise at 40 mph. In 1979 it made a five-hour, 170-mile flight across the English Channel, consuming no fuel whatsoever.
People like Pete Buck, John Monnett, Greg Cole, and Randall Fishman from Electra Flyer continued with the idea of a manned electric plane for leisure use, or maybe even bigger. Fishman successfully produced the first fully electric one-seated leisure plane and designed the concept of a two-seater design, the Electra Flyer X. His design debuted at Air Venture 2009 and won the Lindbergh Aviation Award. This award is given annually to individuals whose work has made significant contributions toward the concept of balancing technology and nature. Fishman wanted the design to be licensed under the Light-Sport Aircraft category but ran into a snag with the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA). So far the Federal Aviation Agency still hasn’t approved the design, because they want more real-time experience with electric flights before they certify it.
Besides a current lack of confidence in electric planes, the biggest problem of electric planes is power supply. How can we continue to provide a plane with enough energy to keep it flying? Batteries are, in the final analysis, the key to the whole project. Controllers are tricky but feasible. Motors are delicate and expensive, but technically straightforward. It’s really on the batteries. Many experts doubt that large fully electric passenger airliners will be available any time soon. Current battery technology simply does not offer as many miles per kilo compared to aviation fuel. The power density in aviation fuel is high, in the neighborhood of 12,000 watt-hours per kilogram. A lithium-ion battery is only in the region of 200-watt hours per kilogram. For the future of electric planes to really take off, we need to develop batteries that are powerful, durable, and not prone to burst into flame if mistreated. Maybe scientists from Tesla and Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL) can soon come with a solution for this problem. They recently (June 2020) developed the first so-called ‘Million Mile Battery’ with a lifespan of 16 years! Currently, most car batteries don’t live longer than 150,000 miles over a three to eight-year period, so this is a huge step forward. Another step forward might come from a 120 years old invention from Swedish inventor Ernst Waldemar Jungner and Thomas Edison. In the past it was considered dangerous that their nickel-iron battery leaked hydrogen when being charged, but now it’s seen as an advantage. A research team at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands is now investigating how to improve the nickel-iron battery so it can be used to store and produce clean energy in a more sustainable, efficient and even cheaper way. They’ve named their new battery: “battolyser”. Conventional batteries, such as those based on lithium, can store energy in the short-term, but when they’re fully charged they have to release any excess or they could overheat and degrade. The nickel-iron battolysers, on the other hand are more resilient and able to withstand undercharging and overcharging better than other batteries. On top, when fully charged they start producing hydrogen, which can be stored to be used as a fuel when the batteries are empty. This feature is very useful to be able to store excessive energy from renewables, but can also be useful to help power electrical planes.
Even without better batteries or other sources for in-flight energy, some companies do already show hope for the future. According to the consulting firm Roland Berger, there are currently about 170 electric aircraft projects underway internationally. Many of the projects are futuristic designs aimed at developing urban air taxis, private planes, or aircraft for package delivery just like the drones used by Amazon.
Zunum electric jet
Boeing and JetBlue have invested big in the electric aircraft startup Zunum Aero. Zunum’s proposed regional aircraft will hold anywhere from 10 to 50 passengers with a range of up to 1,000 miles. The jet will be powered by a battery first series hybrid propulsion system. This calls for the aircraft to be primarily run on battery power with an aviation diesel or turbine range-extending power generator on call if necessary. Since the aircraft isn’t expected to fly until the next decade and will have a service life of roughly 20 years, Zunum is designing its aircraft to be “future-proof”. The design will allow it to adapt to new technology. For instance, the aircraft will initially feature hybrid propulsion which delivers 80% lower emissions than comparable traditional aircraft. However, with advancements in battery technology, the range-extending internal combustion engine can be replaced with an extra battery pack thereby lowering emissions to zero
Another promising and more advanced prototype is called Alice. It was unveiled at the 2019 Paris Air Show. Developed by Israeli firm Eviation, the plane can carry nine passengers for up to 1,046 km. The aircraft has one main pusher-propeller on the tail and one on each wing. Eviation says the shift to electric could significantly reduce operating costs while eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. After enough test flights, planes like this could be the future of short-haul flights. Imagine how good it will be when we can really fly with zero greenhouse gas emission from Amsterdam to London, London to Paris, Paris to Milan and even further!
Without a fancy lightweight design, the classic seaplanes from the Canadian owned Harbour Air might offer the first fully electrically powered commercial flights! This thanks to the effort of Roei Ganzarski of MagniX and Greg McDougall, founder of Harbour Air. Together they converted one of the Harbour Air seaplanes so it could run on battery power rather than fossil fuels. Harbour Air’s short-distance flights on small, single, and twin-engine planes have lower power demands which means they don’t need heavy batteries. “Most of our routes are within the range of technology that exists today,” McDougall says. This ability to use existing technology, including the 62-year-old Beaver airframe and the NASA-certified lithium-ion batteries, means the certification process to meet the Federal Aviation Agency and Transport Canada requirements is expected to be easier than it would be with a plane built from the ground up. He hopes to get paying passengers in their Eplanes in under two years. “Canada isn’t always known as an innovation center,” says Holtz. “It’s very regulated and aviation itself is very regulated. But Transport Canada has been trying to help us get through hurdles instead of putting them up.”
Although Harbour Air’s efforts to electrify its fleet are unlikely to have a major impact on aviation emissions, they might have another important impact. Blazing a trail for other electrical aircraft projects has been a major goal for Harbour Air and MagniX. According to Lynette Dray, there’s a lot of value in getting prototype models on the market so that the technology has a chance to become familiar and trusted. When Harbour Air gets their Eplane(s) certified by Canada’s Ministry of Transport, that might just be the push electric planes need to be able to really take off and provide the world with more sustainable transport options.