Short opinion piece about these helium airships and the need to preserve helium.
Back before there were memes as we know them, the meme for a disaster was the Hindenburg. The Hindenburg was this giant Zeppelin, an Airship filled with hydrogen gas that’s lighter than air. Like a helium balloon. So it would just float but it had a huge passenger compartment. This is back in. 1937, so 80 years ago, the Hindenburg famously ignited and turned into a giant flame in the sky and scared the shit out of everyone forever and these things have not gotten a lot of attention since then.
I think they’re cool. But there’s a real problem with trying to make a lot of hydrogen next to actual humans and somehow imagine that it’s going to be safe. So since then, people have played around with things like blimps and things that don’t have passengers and stuff like that. But these things don’t, aren’t very popular. I have seen a little bit of news lately about this group called Lighter Than Air Research, which is trying to create air ships today.
These are in part probably safer because they don’t fill them with hydrogen, they fill them with helium. So this is a massive craft. They call Pathfinder one. I’m going to link to an article in IEEE Spectrum about this and I’m just going to give you, the highlights.
Pathfinder 1 is 120 meters, long, 20 meters in diameter. I think biggest Goodyear blimp right now is 75 meters. So this is like the biggest air ship ever made. I think.
The idea is to carry about four tons of cargo. It sounds like a lot, but if you’re not familiar with a ton, four tons is about one Humvee. Or, maybe four tons might be a good size Amazon delivery van fully loaded. That’s four tons of cargo. There’s still, also a crew, there’s what’s called water ballast, which is, water you carry for weight. So if you have a problem, descending too fast, you could drop the water and it would slow your descent to make it safe. And then fuel, cause you still need fuel in order to propel the thing. The idea is this thing would go 65 knots. So that’s about 120 kilometers an hour, which I think about 70 miles an hour. That’s about as fast as these things seem to ever really be able to go, but the, average cruising speed probably maxes out at more like two-thirds of that. This is a modern Airship probably worth revisiting it to see if it can be done better. The old ones were built with, a lot of wood. They were built with a lot of aluminum which is, good strength to weight ratio, but incendiary. In the sense that it melts at a low temperature. Modern crafts could be built with carbon fiber and titanium and all these modern materials that we can coat to make them less inflammatory,
So that’s the frame and then you also have this covering and the coverings gonna be made of not cotton the way we used to do it, but we’re going to make that out of some modern polyvinyl from DuPont called Tedlar. So obviously those materials have advanced a lot in our lifetime. If you sense a little bit of a dubiousness in my voice, I’m going to tell you why that is in a little bit here.
That’s the basic idea. There’s also a lot that’s advanced in weather prediction. There’s a lot that’s advanced in electric motors for propulsion. There’s a lot that’s advanced in autonomous flying and driving. And so we have lidars and we have things that can figure out how to make these things dramatically safer. I buy all that. Here’s what bothers me.
The world has unlimited hydrogen on earth, more or less. We have a lot. We can make more. Hydrogen’s awesome. What the world does not have on earth is very much helium. We have very little helium. We have very little helium left. We’ve been able to find a few new helium mines in the last decade, but there’s just not much of it.
And that is a super valuable element that we really need for lots of different things. We need it for making computer chips. We need it for figuring out how to make fusion reactors and things like that. We’re just running out of helium and I’m pretty disappointed in any plan that involves using a lot of helium as it’s lighter than air substance.
Because of that, I’m really having a hard time getting excited about these modern airships that want to use helium. Helium is not flammable, so it won’t burn up the way that hydrogen does. If you remember your periodic table, if you look at the very beginning, the reason you’ve probably heard of hydrogen and helium is they’re numbers one and two. They are the lowest weight elements in the world.
And hydrogen is a lot lighter than helium, but it also, combined with oxygen just fucking blows up, which is great, amazing amount of energy in hydrogen. We have a lot of use for that. But what’s happening with helium is, we’re just letting it go. We’re giving it away in party balloons which is a terrible disaster. It makes me practically cry when I see helium balloons, which is sad. I grew up with them. I love them. I want my kid to have them. They’re fun, but that’s a waste of good helium. We just don’t have enough and we don’t have a way of making more. And that’s the really important thing to understand.
Until we get real good control of fusion reactors, and have extra ones to deploy at the job, we don’t even have any way of making helium. When you do have a fusion reactor, it makes a little bit of helium, but not much. Maybe someday fusion reactors will be able to be designed to put out a lot of helium for balloons, but right now they don’t.
They don’t do anything right now, but they don’t do that. So the point is. We should be really careful about how we deplete the helium that we do have here on earth. Maybe someday we’ll get a highway to the moon and we’ll be able to go get a lot more helium. But right now this is this is a really important resource that I think we should be careful about. I don’t want to see it used on airships, which require a lot.
Okay. Second thing. I tried playing with helium before, and we do use a lot of helium for weather balloons and things like that. Please use hydrogen. It’s okay if a weather balloon burns. A helium balloon that’s big, it’s just a really hard to manage. Putting a lot of lighter than air gas into a balloon to get it off the ground and float it up into the atmosphere. It’s just unwieldy. I only have a little bit of experience with this early days at Blue Origin, we tried to make some giant helium balloons just to see what potential might be in that. It’s hard cause, you gotta make the balloon out of something light and not too structural. The airships have a frame. We didn’t have frames. We just had big balloons that we made. We made them really light. But, you’ve got to bring tanks and tanks of helium to go, then fill that up to launch it wherever you are. The process of filling it up, it wants to float away while you’re filling it, and you think you could just keep loading gas into it the way that you would with a party balloon, but in practice, the more you load into it, the harder it is to tether the thing and keep the wind from blowing it away.
And maybe you could do that indoors and then have a ceiling the launches, it’s pretty impractical to do. And, with travel, you want to be able to go a lot of different places, obviously with an Airship, you’d try to fill it once and then use your electric motors to move that thing around, up and down and maybe. I give up as little helium as possible, but that’s the other thing about helium. It’s really hard to contain. It leaks through almost everything. It is a very small molecule.
I’m putting this out there just to let you guys know how I feel about it. From what I understand to date. I have not met or talked to the folks that are working on this at Lighter Than Air Research. If you know them, please introduce me and I’m sure that they can tell me how they think about it. I’m sure they have some other perspective and if I get that in my head, I’ll let you know if I change my mind.