The second golden age of the airship has run head-on into a logistical snag, Danger Room reports this morning. The military is so eager to get more airships in the air in places like Afghanistan that industry cannot keep up with its demand for helium gas and helium gas containers.
We've reported previously that helium supplies are running short (can we go ahead and coin the term "peak helium?"), but that was at a more macro, global scale. The military's problem is more specific: it needs to get more reconnaissance aerostats in the sky over Afghanistan, and it can't find dealers that can fill its tall orders for helium.
Airships like Northrop Grumman's Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) need a hell of a lot of helium--roughly 800,000 cubic feet per--quantities that commercial dealers can't seem to reliably meet. In fact, DR reports, when the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency recently put out a request for helium to meet the DoD's airship needs, no one called back. They had to break down their bulk order into smaller pieces.
That's not to say we're completely out of helium, but right now demand seems to be outstripping supply. Helium gas isn't just good for party favors. Helium has the lowest boiling point of any known readily available gas, so it's an in-demand gaseous cooling source for things like superconducting magnets in MRI scanners or particle colliders. It's used in everything from fiber optics to quantum computers.
And, of course, in airships, which brings us back to the problem at hand. The military continues to fuel up more blimps--they can carry way more reconnaissance gear than, say, Predator and Reaper drones, and they can stay aloft for days rather than hours. But there's really no great way to get at helium in large quantities cheaply and easily. Which means those colorful party balloons may become a lot more expensive at some point in the next decade.
I really like to see a Blimp made into the shape of a giant PINK PIG. Just to see PIGS fly.
And much more fun, yes, I love to see this fly in Afghanistan, lol, snort.
The use of He in party balloons and military blimps should be outlawed as a frivolous use of a critical scientific resource.
Hydrogen is an even better lifting gas despite the Hindenburg disaster. Yes, it burns but so does jet fuel. The risks of hydrogen can be managed without too much difficulty.
Best of all, the hydrogen supply is unlimited.
There is no compelling reason not to use hydrogen, as the lifting gas in unmanned airships. There will never be a shortage of hydrogen.
Hydrogen got a bad rap after the Hindenberg -- even though the spectacular flames were caused by the rocket fuel they used to coat the outside surface, and not by the hydrogen lifting gas (which burns invisibly).
Isn't there a power cell process that has a single byproduct of helium?
Or am I thinking of pure fusion?
It's ridiculous to use helium in airships. It's EXTREMELY expensive. In 2011 I think it cost $75.75/ thousand cubic feet, making it cost about $60600 to fill a single blimp. But helium tends to leak, so they have to be refilled frequently. By contrast, hydrogen or lift gases containing hydrogen can be ten times cheaper, and are plentiful.
It also has far inferior lift capabilities compared to hydrogen, since it's four times heavier. Hydrogen very definitely can be used safely. It's flammable, but so is gasoline and jet fuel. We don't ban those in aviation.
GMTA! You beat me by less than 3 minutes. I was still composing, while you posted. Obviously, I completely agree with you.
I am not sure how high this blimp fly’s, but this blimp seems like an easy target to shoot out of the sky; an expensive target to lose too. In this case if its filled with hydrogen or helium, it doesn't matter.
I imagine our drones are a little harder to shoot down.
I think that the rise of airships once more is an amazing feat, but I do not think in this economy it was the best move.. Even if they were filled with hydrogen, is there that much of an advantage over what we already have other than the ability to hold one position in the air better than a helicopter?
The USDD has two options: Switch to hydrogen and take the risks, or have a more integral role in convincing Congress to give NASA the money it needs to mine astro-resources from the moon and the sun (which are ripe with helium).
I believe the concept is dual (manned/unmanned) operations.
Something the size of a Jumbo Jet or a blimp is a very difficult target to hit at 36,000 feet, which is practicle for recon & surveillance missions in an area devoid of land defensive counter-air assets capable of reaching such altitudes.
That's why drones can zip around Afghanistan uncontested. Otherwise there'd be supersonic fighters and high altitude precision bombers flying offensive counter-air missions overhead to destroy such assets, and drones ops would be pushed to higher altitudes to avoid enemy fire.
As far as hitting an aerostat goes small weapons fire would tike some time to bring it down, and then you can fix the holes with relative ease (compared to new parts for a chopper) As far as larger munitions, the damage would generally be limited to a single hole the size of the projectile, as there is no heat or mass signature significant enough to trigger them.
Compare the cost of one fill up with helium to 5 days of helicopter flight (remember to include the imbedded costs of maintenance, the flight crew, the required down time AND the fuel) Here is where the cost savings are found. Did I mention the repair costs? Airships use what are essentially high quality bicycle patches.(application technique is usually proprietary)
@phoenix, the problem with mining asteroids is that its considered common ground, we aren't allowed to set up military installations in or above low orbit. it's kinda like how if two soveriegn states are warring and there's a third state who doesn't want a part of it, they'll say, "no military on our lands" and enforce it. it's just that "space" is technically owned by everyone, so everyone sat down and agreed not to put a military installation out there. and since the only entity close to the ability to make a moon mining expedition would be the united states armed forces it would technically be considered a military outpost.
that's not to say that some private sector couldn't go out there and monopolize the helium market!
to mars or bust!
@ Phoenix...Mining the moon is unlikely to make helium any cheaper, so I think that we should go with Hydrogen, which as many people have mentioned has gotten an unnecessarily bad rap. You can always encase the containers in a neutral element if you are afraid of reactions, and since most of the prototypes I have heard about were unmanned, I am not sure if it really matters that much anyways.
I thought they have been storing a huge amount it West Texas for some 50 years. Where is that now, did it leak out?
Seems they could mix helium and hydrogen to make a gas mix that is lighter.
Exactly the point on that. Private industry benefits public industry as well. A mining company could easily sell its prospects for government use (which includes military). In the legislative process anyone could have lobbyists pushing an agenda of public interest including the military, and it doesn't have to be a military issue. That would be the loophole around international law surrounding the usage of space. It's how the Americas were utilized during Europes colonial period.
Space may belong to everyone, but in that sense it doesn't belong to anyone. Space pretty much belongs to the nations with the capabilities to put assets into space. This explains the existence of comm sats and GPS for military use. Space may not be weaponized in that sense but it is used for war (of course we could talk ICBM as space based weapons launched from the surface).
Sure enough when another great economic power begins to increase space activity that conflicts with U.S. space dominance (say China), it will be a cause of friction that will lead to the debunking of established international law the moment one entity breaks the rules.
Guess it's an excuse for NASA to plan trips to Jupiter which is loaded with Helium.
Hydrogen would definitely be a better lifting gas but it is only half as light as Helium not four times as aarontco said. Lets make bigger airships, the bigger they are the more efficient they get because the volume is cubed and the surface area is only squared!
It's too bad hydrogen is so explosive. It is much more cost effective, with around twice the lifing power and a fraction of the cost of helium. I wonder if there is a way to make hydrogen more practical to use as a lifting gas?
I am very confident that it is possible to design a double envelope (outer envelope helium, inner envelope hydrogen) that would be very, very difficult to light on fire, even firing RPG's and incendiary bullets at it at point blank range. The outer envelope of helium would simply smother everything.
@woolsocks: The outer envelope doesn't have to be helium. It could even be nitrogen, which is technically 3% lighter than air. Mixing nitrogen and hydrogen would produce ammonia, which is also sometimes used as a lift gas.
We do indeed have problems finding quality helium. It is very difficult to manufacture and there have been issues with the quality of the helium in the past as well. Air "mysteriously" found its way into the cylinders in the past.
Some of your theories are correct. Hydrogen can be used safely if done properly. The issue up until now has been lagging policy. The science doesn't matter if clients won't use it. But I suspect that the DoD is already writing emails internally looking at this as an option. We shall see. We can easily modify operations to support hydrogen filled airships given about 6 months. There are some permits involved with this process as well.
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Hydrogen is not explosive.
Hydrogen in a stoichiometric system with a compatible oxidizer is explosive.
If you you make a balloon from high temperature membrane, fill it with hydrogen, poke a hole in it and light the escaping gasses on fire you will see you will see a small flame like a pilot light and that is all. The flame will not go inside the balloon and there will be no explosion. The balloon will just slowly deflate at about the same rate weather nor not the flame is lit.
You can run a normal blimp off hydrogen but it is unsafe because the membrane may become unstable and the hole could expand from the heat of the fire. Tests may show this is not the case but you should at least have the tests done before using hydrogen.
It may be the case that self healing membranes could be developed that would light the escaping hydrogen intentionally. Heat sensitive fibers in a hexagonal pattern would then tighten around the shrinking or closing it.
This is another problem caused by government intervention in the market and the inevitable mismanagement that goes with it. The US government set up the natural helium reserve and began to sell it down in the nineties. The price is artificially low which leads to missallocation of resources that we are seeing. If the resource had been left to the market from the start and the strategic reserve not established the price would have been set by the market and would have reflected its scarcity. Perhaps it would have been too expensive for party balloons. Government mismanagement of the economy it's the same old story we seem time and again and seem doomed to repeat.
And history repeats itself. This same problem plagued the Germans back when everyone was building lighter-than-air vehicles. Thats why the Hindenburg and all it's sisters used hydrogen instead of helium. And it's why party balloons outside the West are usually filled with hydrogen as well. The biggest issue with supply, however, is natural gas. How is that market going, how many NG wells are being tapped and harvested now, and per year? The only other way I know of to gather He is through fractional distillation of atmosphere, and that takes a lot of power.
Do any of you believe that hydrogen has twice the lifting power of helium as commented above?
In reality, the difference in lifting power between the two gasses is almost insignificant.
I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out why.
The Goodrich/Goodyear good something blimp routinely gets hits from small arms flying over LA. The resulting holes are not significant in terms of leaking gas.
Here is a excerpt I pulled from "physics.stackexchange.com"
air (fluid): 1.2 kg/(m^3)
helium (contents): 0.0899 kg/(m^3)
hydrogen (contents): 0.1786 kg/(m^3)
Helium has an atomic mass of about four times that of hydrogen. But it does not form a diatomic molecule like hydrgen (H2) does. So it's density is only twice that of hydrogen, rather than four times.
So, at STP, the CONTENTS of a hydrogen filled ballon will give a net bouyant force of about:
(9.8)(1.2kg - 0.0899kg)/(m^3) = 10.0N/(m^3) ---> about 2.44 lb./(m^3)
The CONTENTS of a helium filled ballon will give a net bouyant force of:
(9.8)(1.2kg - 0.1786kg)/(m^3) = 10.0N/(m^3) ---> about 2.25 lb./(m^3)
The hydrogen filled ballon gives about 9% more net bouyant force.
Remember that temperature and pressure both dramatically affect actual bouyant force.
Fantastic point. Its the bouyancy force that matters... not the weight of the gas. Even though the helium is twice as heavy as hydrogen (I think the guy above that said 4 times heavier forgot hydrogen is generally found as a diatomic molecule), the equation for bouyancy doesnt use the mass term as a multiplier, its done as a difference between densities (between the lift gas and air), so really the difference is very small.
Wikipedia has a good explenation of this:
Beat me to it... In any event, though it may not be much more powerful than helium, the availability of hydrogen definitely is a big plus. That alone would be enough to warrant my interest in this program.
Unless of course I invested a lot of money in a special skin for the airship that turned out to be about as flameretardant as a pile of dried leaves (its fall... its whats on my mind)....
The other factor to concider is the cost of materials. Hydrogen is harder to contain that Helium. Even the fabrics I've used for helium had to be rigorously inspected and repaired before they could be used. and the porosity was an issue even then. I haven't looked in a while, but last time I checked there was still a big trade off between the porosity and the duribility of the materials( let alone UV resistance). Double hull would help, but it increases the required volume of lifting gas for a given payload. (by a lot)
Another aspect of using H2 for lift is that you could replenish any leakage by using an evaporator unit or capturing water during a rain storm. Then using solar cells to provide electricity break the molecule into component gasses, You could inject the Hydrogen back into the balloon.
This practice could extend the duration of missions.
@ Pheonix, Ghost. Helium costs around $5 a litre right now. Show me the company willing to go to the moon for that price. If there was gold the moon, it still wouldn't be economically viable to mine it.
@ hydrogen proponents. I agree hydrogen got a bad rap with the whole: "oh the humanity" event but the reasons still hold true today.
One RPG when the blimp is descending to be refueled and the project would be scrapped.