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Re­mem­ber the Hin­den­burg? For­get the Hin­den­burg!

- Barry Pren­tice Barry Pren­tice is a pro­fes­sor of sup­ply chain man­age­ment at the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba and a mem­ber of the Re­search Ad­vi­sory Board at the North­ern Pol­icy In­sti­tute. Aviation · Clean Tech · Transportation · Travel · Ecology · Industries · Germany · Zoom Video Communications · France · Israel · United States of America · Canada · Washington · Montreal · Ottawa · Toronto · Niagara Falls, NY · Niagara · United States Bureau of Mines

Hy­dro­gen is not just the trans­porta­tion fuel of the fu­ture: it is here now. Hy­dro­gen gas is al­ready used to power road ve­hi­cles (cars, trucks, buses), fork­lift trucks and even, in Ger­many, trains. Avi­a­tion is the next mode of trans­port con­vert­ing to hy­dro­gen. Hy­dro­gen- us­ing air­planes are still some ways off. But safe and cost- ef­fec­tive hy­dro­gen air­ships could be fly­ing now, if only our air reg­u­la­tions al­lowed it.

Ear­lier this month, the first In­ter­na­tional Hy­dro­gen Avi­a­tion Con­fer­ence (IHAC), orig­i­nally sched­uled for Scot­land but moved to Zoom be­cause of the pan­demic, brought to­gether ex­perts on hy­dro­gen- pow­ered air­planes, hy­dro­gen stor­age sys­tems and elec­tric air­ships.

The de­vel­op­ment of elec­tric air­craft has been un­der­way for some time. Elec­tric mo­tors have al­ready been cer­ti­fied for avi­a­tion use, while pro­to­types have been flown us­ing lithium- ion bat­ter­ies and hy­dro­gen fuel cells ( HFCS). The ob­vi­ous chal­lenges for elec­tric air­planes are the weight and space re­quired to store suf­fi­cient en­ergy.

Hy­dro­gen is a win­ner in en­ergy terms. Per kilo­gram, it has 10 times the en­ergy den­sity of bat­ter­ies. But a hy­dro­gen air­plane must also ac­com­mo­date stor­age tanks and the fuel cell. Hy­dro­gen must be cryo­geni­cally liq­ue­fied ( to - 263° C) and stored in vac­uum- in­su­lated con­tain­ment ves­sels to pro­vide enough fuel for jet air­planes. Reg­u­lar jet fuel is held in a plane’s wings, but the size and shape of hy­dro­gen fuel tanks re­quire them to be stowed in the fuse­lage. Retrofitti­ng ex­ist­ing air­craft is ex­pen­sive, the sup­ply chain for liq­uid hy­dro­gen is em­bry­onic, and re­fu­elling at air­ports has yet to be worked out. So, don’t ex­pect to fly on a hy­dro­gen-pow­ered jet any­time soon.

Air­ships pow­ered and lifted by hy­dro­gen are a dif­fer­ent mat­ter, as pre­sen­ta­tions by air­ship com­pa­nies rep­re­sent­ing France, Is­rael, the U. S. and Canada made clear at IHAC. Un­like air­planes, di­ri­gi­bles do not need liq­uid hy­dro­gen. They are so big they can stow pres­sur­ized hy­dro­gen gas tanks with­out im­ping­ing on the space re­quired for cargo or pas­sen­gers. All four air­ship com­pa­nies plan to use hy­dro­gen-fuelled craft and elec­tric mo­tors to de­liver zero- car­bon emis­sions trans­port.

Although avi­a­tion reg­u­la­tors seem con­tent with the use of hy­dro­gen in all forms of trans­port, there is one anom­aly — us­ing hy­dro­gen gas to in­flate air­ships. Cana­dian Air Reg­u­la­tion 541.7 states: “Hy­dro­gen is not an ac­cept­able lift­ing gas for use in air­ships.” A ban on this one use of hy­dro­gen is strange, given that Canada has never had an air­ship in­dus­try. The ban’s ori­gins are even more sur­pris­ing.

In 1922, of­fi­cials from the U. S. Bureau of Mines, try­ing to pro­tect a newly es­tab­lished he­lium re­fin­ery, staged a fraud­u­lent demon­stra­tion in Wash­ing­ton. They showed that a he­lium- filled toy bal­loon will not ig­nite. Pure hy­dro­gen will not burn ei­ther, but if the gas is con­tam­i­nated by more than 25 per cent air, it can.

Their con­tam­i­nated hy­dro­gen bal­loon created a bang that rat­tled the win­dows of Congress. Based on noth­ing more, U. S. politi­cians banned hy­dro­gen’s use in air­ships.

Other coun­tries ig­nored the U. S. pro­hi­bi­tion, how­ever. In 1930, the hy­dro­gen-filled, Bri­tish-built R100 air­ship, known as the “Em­peror of Canada,” flew here and hundreds of thou­sands of peo­ple lined up to see it in Mon­treal, Ot­tawa, Toronto and Ni­a­gara Falls.

The fiery Hin­den­burg ac­ci­dent in Lake­hurst, N. J., in May 1937 is of­ten con­sid­ered to have rung the death knell for hy­dro­gen- filled air­ships, but re­search shows that the craft’s flammable en­ve­lope was really to blame. With 21st- cen­tury ma­te­ri­als and engi­neer­ing, a modern hy­dro­gen di­ri­gi­ble would be as safe as any modern air­plane. Still, after the Se­cond World War, when the U. S. was the dom­i­nant world air power, its reg­u­la­tions were rub­ber-stamped into the laws of most other na­tions, in­clud­ing Canada’s. Thus did Canada come to ban this sin­gle use of hy­dro­gen as a lift­ing gas in air­ships — not be­cause of engi­neer­ing re­search but be­cause of a po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion made in a for­eign coun­try, 98 years ago, at the be­hest of dis­hon­est lob­by­ists.

If hy­dro­gen gas in a pres­sur­ized tank is con­sid­ered safe for pow­er­ing air­planes, why is the same hy­dro­gen in a non- pres­sur­ized con­tain­ment ves­sel not safe for lift­ing air­ships? This pro­hi­bi­tion on hy­dro­gen has held back re­search and created doubts about the eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity of air­ships, which have been forced to de­pend in­stead on in­creas­ingly scarce sup­plies of he­lium.

Canada needs cargo air­ships to pro­vide lower- cost, year- round trans­port to the North, es­pe­cially if warmer tem­per­a­tures come to play havoc with the win­ter road sys­tem. Air­ships could well do for the North­ern econ­omy what rail­ways did for Western Canada 125 years ago. Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau, you were brave enough to end the ban on cannabis. It is time to end the fraud­u­lently in­duced ban on the use of hy­dro­gen gas in air­ships and set this tech­nol­ogy free.

 ?? AFP via Gett y Imag es ?? The Ger­man gi­ant air­ship Hin­den­burg ex­plodes in a ball of fire as it comes in to land in New Jersey in May 1937.
AFP via Gett y Imag es The Ger­man gi­ant air­ship Hin­den­burg ex­plodes in a ball of fire as it comes in to land in New Jersey in May 1937.

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