This post by Monbiot reminds me of that time, long ago, when I picked up a book by John McPhee called The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, about a rag-tag group of ex-Navy types who were designing the air transport of the future...an ovoid airship which had the advantage of having "lift," so was more aerodynamic and faster than a simple blimp like the GoodYear one you see everywhere.
I thought this book was fiction and read almost half of it before I happened to read the back-cover blurb, which corrected me. It was real. A more unlikely story you might not read anywhere, and of course, it's told in McPhee's scintillating signature style.
Monbiot may not be quite as visionary as the group who developed the Aeron (the Deltoid Pumpkin Seed,) which was finally abandoned after decades of trial.... or not quite; in fact the story did not end there for William Miller, now 79, the president of Princeton, New Jersey-based Aeron. He's still trying to convince the US government to continue funding of the project [image from Aeron website].
Monbiot thinks he has the answer to the problems of normal aircraft being major polluters and greenhouse-gas emitters.
From his article(emphasis added:)
There are two reasons why we make such a fuss about flying. The first is that, even as governments promise to cut emissions, everywhere airports are expanding. In the UK, the government expects the number of airline passengers to rise from 228 million in 2005 to 480 million in 2030. Before long, there will scarcely be a patch of sky without a jet in it. The other is that there are no alternative means of propelling people through the air which are not more destructive than burning ordinary aviation fuel. Or so we think.
The airline companies prescribe two cures that are even worse than the disease. Even before they are deployed commercially in jets, biofuels are spreading hunger and deforestation. At first sight, hydrogen seems more promising. If it is produced by electrolysis using renewable electricity, it's almost carbon free. The prohibitive issue is storage. Hydrogen contains just a quarter of the energy as the same volume of jet fuel (kerosene), which means that planes could fly long distances only if they were filled with gas, rather than passengers or cargo.
Even when burning fossil fuels, the total climate-changing impact of an airship, according to researchers at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, is 80% to 90% smaller than that of ordinary aircraft. But the airship is also the only form of transport that can easily store hydrogen: you could inflate a hydrogen bladder inside the helium balloon. There might be a neat synergy here: one of the problems with airships is that they become lighter, and therefore harder to control, as the fuel is consumed. In this case they become heavier. Michael Stewart of the company World SkyCat suggests burning both gaseous and liquid hydrogen to keep the weight of the craft constant.
Modern airships, by the way, are considerably safer than the infamous hydrogen-fueled Hindenberg. Monbiot notes that "Most of the new designs make use of aerodynamic lift as well as buoyancy (they are shaped like fat planes with stubby wings or tails), which means they are heavier and more stable than the old dirigibles and can land without help on the ground."...shades of the Aeron!