80 Years Later, Stigma Of Hindenburg Disaster Still Affects Hydrogen

Eighty years after the Hindenburg disaster, the airship appears to be finally inching closer to returning to the skies. But it remains unclear whether today’s advanced airships will ever resume the use of hydrogen. The Hindenburg famously crashed and burned in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, killing 36 people. Although it was far from the first crash by a hydrogen-powered airship, the spectacular footage of the disaster essentially ended the era of the zeppelin. The sporadic use of helium-powered blimps continued in subsequent decades, and a new breed of airships recently took to the skies. Those airships, however, also use helium rather than hydrogen — a pattern analysts in part attribute to continued public perceptions of hydrogen as a dangerous, flammable gas. To mark Saturday’s 80th anniversary of the disaster, the Royal Society of Chemistry examined the suspected causes of the Hindenburg crash — electrostatic discharge, most likely — and noted dramatic advancements in both aviation safety and in the handling of hydrogen. If hydrogen can move past the stigma of the Hindenburg, it could provide substantial advantages over helium. It’s much lighter — and therefore could lift more passengers or cargo — and there are concerns about just how much helium is available on Earth. Although new airships are touted as ideal for sightseeing, they could prove more important to commerce. The helium-fueled Airlander 10, for example, can carry more than 22,000 pounds with no emissions. Studies also suggested that airships could provide an alternate way for companies to ship their goods overseas, and e-commerce giant Amazon is even looking at the possibility of airborne warehouses.

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