AIRSHIPSSolar-Powered Airships Could Make Air Travel Climate-Friendly

Published 26 May 2023

Flying is the most damaging mode of transportation for our climate. At least, up until now. Researchers are investigating technical alternatives to conventional aircraft, and one such alternative is the old-fashioned airship, equipped with solar panels.  

Flying is the most damaging mode of transportation for our climate. At least, up until now. But work is already underway to investigate technical alternatives to conventional aircraft. For example, airships with highly efficient solar cells and extremely light batteries on board. Prof. Dr. Christoph Pflaum from FAU, together with Prof. Dr. Agnes Jocher from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the FAU student Tim Riffelmacher, has investigated which route a solar airship would have to take in order to fly from London to New York as quickly and as climate-friendly as possible.

The findings were published in the International Journal of Sustainable Energy.

“If we rely on solar-powered airships, we can make aviation more climate-friendly relatively quickly and economically,” says Prof. Dr. Christoph Pflaum. The computer science professor at FAU specializes in numerical simulation with high-performance computers and has published the paper “Design and route optimization for an airship with onboard solar energy harvesting” together with FAU student Tim Riffelmacher and Professor Jocher from TUM.

Climate-Friendly and Cost-Effective Air Ttravel
“Our calculations show that solar airships could significantly reduce both transport costs and the CO2 emissions of air travel,” explains Professor Pflaum. In the course of his research, the scientist has become a true fan of solar-powered air travel and eagerly lists its many benefits: “Solar airships are absolutely climate-friendly because they are equipped with extremely light and highly efficient thin-film solar cells that recharge over again during the flight. As a result, no combustion-related emissions are generated while the airship is flying.”

Energy from the power grid is only needed to recharge the battery before the airship is launched and the charging process has very low CO2 emissions. “A maximum of five percent of the amount of carbon dioxide generated in conventional air transport is emitted,” he says and refers to the figures: Compared with long-haul freight flights, less than one percent is generated, by medium-haul flights almost 1.4 percent and for person transport approximately five percent.

“Unfortunately, this solar airship does not exist at the moment, but in California a company is investing heavily in developing a large, fully rigid airship for the first time in 90 years, which offers a lot of space and is well protected in wind and weather,” says Professor Pflaum enthusiastically.