Monday, July 4, 2016

Latest Technology May Aid Air Freight Utilise a New, Yet Old, Mode of Transport

2D Graphene Helps to Power European Airship
Shipping News Feature
EUROPE – CHINA – WORLDWIDE – It must be said that we have in the past sometimes poured scorn on the idea of the airship as a viable option as a regular carrier of air freight, particularly looking historically at the devastating effects the weather can have on the huge craft but, along with drones, (another favourite target of ours) they may indeed have a niche in the logistics market in certain circumstances and regions of the world. Over two years ago we set out the latest case illustrating the development of the Aeroscraft and now a European venture is set to use cutting edge technology to help its own huge heavy-lift airship project get off the ground.

Skeleton Technologies, headquartered in Germany but with its R&D centred in Estonia, is leading ultracapacitor manufacturer and specialist in the construction of these high speed electrical discharge components using graphene, the one atom thick, two dimensional crystal first isolated just twelve years ago by two Russian scientists, a feat for which they won the Nobel Prize. Graphene is set to change every aspect of modern life as its uses are developed, it's thickness (or lack of it) causes it to be rated as two dimensional and, despite being 200 times stronger than steel, so thin it is transparent and yet forms a perfect barrier, even to helium molecules. It is also of course a superb electrical conductor.

Ultracapacitors typically store up to 100 times more energy than similar electrolytic capacitors, and can accept and deliver charge much faster than batteries whilst tolerating many more charge and discharge cycles than rechargeable batteries. Traditionally however they have been much larger than conventional batteries for a given charge. Skeleton’s technology is intended to develop the capabilities of the hybrid propulsion system the airship will require, and which the company is helping to design and build. The overall programme to build a 60 tonne Large Capacity Airship, or LCA60T, for the global transport market is the brainchild of French firm Flying Whales and CEO Sébastien Bougon said of the project:

“A key advantage of the LCA60T is that it will not require an airport or any kind of runway to operate, opening up new markets across the world for industries that require heavy-lift or oversize cargo options, across terrain lacking in infrastructure. We’re designing the LCA60T to transport logging timber from remote locations, but that also means being able to deliver large items like wind turbines or electricity pylons in one piece to the side of a mountain, for example.

“It could also move prefabricated houses or building modules across undeveloped terrain or transport large aircraft components from one supply chain location to the next. The airship’s hybrid electric power propulsion delivers a minimal environmental footprint at a fraction of the cost of current solutions, if such solutions even exist.”

The Flying Whales programme is part of the French Government’s ‘Nouvelle France Industrielle’ plans for future transport, with the country’s forestry agency highlighting the need for LCA60T to extract timber. Last year Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls oversaw the signing of a cooperation and investment framework agreement between Flying Whales and the China Aviation Industry General Aircraft (AVIC General) company, which is to become a Flying Whales significant shareholder. The international shareholding company is leading a consortium of about 30 companies and labs to cover the research and development, engineering, industrialisation and manufacturing phases of the programme.

Mr Bougon says that other potential applications could also improve freight and logistics in remote areas in parts of Africa where business development is hindered by a lack of transport infrastructure, including shipments of humanitarian aid or other urgent supplies. For that purpose he says Morocco will become the ‘third parent country’ of Flying Whales, and he anticipates industrial production of the craft will begin in 2021.

The design specifications for this craft are not so different from the Aeroscraft with its ability to transport heavy and oversized cargo of up to 60 tonnes, either in its 75 metre long hold or underslung, at speeds of around 100 kilometres per hour, giving a range of several thousand kilometres per day. The helium-filled, rigid-structure airship will be capable of winching up and unloading cargo while hovering, at a fraction of the cost of a heavy-lift helicopter, and for much heavier loads. Without the need to make conventional take-offs and landings, energy consumption via its hybrid electric propulsion system will be low. Speaking of his company’s involvement with the project Skeleton Technologies CEO and co-founder Taavi Madiberk commented:

“Our ultracapacitor technology driving the airships’ electric power systems will ensure manoeuvrability and control, such as vertical take-off and landing ability, which will be vital for heavy-lift industrial applications. The large capacity airship programme is initially focused on addressing the specific industrial requirements for the timber industry in France, but it also has the potential to connect landlocked regions across the world to the global economy. Airship technology has the potential to be a game changer, assisting economic development for industries constrained by a lack of infrastructure in a carbon-constrained world.”

Contributors to the Flying Whales project include the giant French aerospace group, Zodiac and the country's own aerospace lab, Onera. The UK, Russia, Canada as well as the US all have projects underway to try and bring airship technology into the 21st century yet even Sébastien Bougon has acknowledged that the wind is the one factor which can prevent an airship performing and, as history has shown, sometimes cause disaster.

Photo: From the UK’s own project, Airlander, comes this artist’s interpretation of the beast in action.