Why Zeppelins Are on the Rise Again

A world in a hurry turns to a lumbering early 20th-century technology for a lesson in efficiency

Top, the Navy’s short-lived USS Macon in 1933; above, a commercial passenger airship in 2014. U.S. Navy; Achim Mende / Zeppelin

In the 1930s, before commercial airplanes began crossing the Atlantic, zeppelins promised to change how we traveled. They could make the voyage in just 43 hours, while the fastest ocean liner took five days. But when the Hindenburg plummeted from the New Jersey sky in 1937, killing 36 people, the disaster also ended the dream that hydrogen-filled airships would be the future of transportation.

Now scientists and others are starting to look at zeppelins as something more than hovering billboards like the Goodyear Blimp. The reason is a benefit that went unrecognized a century ago: Airships can be more fuel efficient than cargo ships and airplanes.

Most modern airships use helium, a nonflammable but expensive and rare gas. But technological advances have lessened the explosive danger associated with hydrogen, which is endlessly abundant. So the military, space agencies and others are stepping up research on hydrogen-filled airships. And cargo transport could be speedy as well as efficient. A new study in the journal Energy Conversion and Management found that an airship five times the length of the Empire State Building riding the jet stream could circle the globe in 14 days—faster than any oceangoing ship.

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