America's Challenge Race Hydrogen-Only - Albuquerque Journal

America’s Challenge Race Hydrogen-Only

When the balloons go up, up and away in the America’s Challenge long distance balloon race at the fiesta, they’ll all be fueled by hydrogen — and none with helium — for the first time in the race’s 17 year history.

The change was precipitated by the inflated cost and increasing scarcity of helium: It can cost thousands of dollars more to fill a balloon with helium as hydrogen — if you can even get it. Past America’s Challenge races have allowed both hydrogen and helium balloons.

“They just could not get helium at all,” said Kim Vesely, spokeswoman for the race. “There is a helium shortage worldwide. It’s just made it extremely difficult to get.”

Most of the balloons flown at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta use hot air to rise, lifted by the contrast between warm air inside the envelopes compared with cool air outside. But the balloon racers use a lighter-than-air gas — helium or hydrogen — to get their initial lift.

The race, one of only two like it in the country, pits balloonists against one another in a battle to get the farthest before touching down.

One side effect to the all-hydrogen rule is that fewer balloons are participating in the race this year, in part because hydrogen-powered gas balloons have not taken off in the U.S., although they are the norm in other parts of the world. There’s five teams competing in the race this year, compared with more than twice that many in past years.

“I know at least two people who wanted to fly in it but weren’t able to get access to hydrogen-compatible balloons,” said Peter Cuneo, an Albuquerque balloonist who is flying in the race.

But balloonists say economics is driving a move toward more hydrogen balloons in the U.S. Small quantities of helium cost up to $1 a cubic foot. If large quantities were available, Cuneo estimates it would cost $20,000 to $30,000 to fill a 35,000 cubic foot balloon.

Vesely called this year a “transition year” for the race.

“The price of helium really started going up a few years ago,” she said. “It’s just become impractical to do any flight with helium. It’s just not economically feasible unless you’re extremely wealthy.”

Cuneo is flying a balloon that he and balloon-builder Bert Padelt developed three years ago. He said he believes it is the first hydrogen-powered balloon built in the U.S. in 60 or 70 years. Since then, Padelt has built two more through his company, Best Aviation.

Hydrogen balloons have a bad reputation because of the Hindenburg disaster, the hydrogen-powered German airship that exploded in 1937, killing 36 people, Cuneo said.

“That’s what everybody remembers about hydrogen even though that was 75 years ago,” Cuneo said.

Cuneo said he believes it may be slightly riskier to fly a hydrogen balloon rather than helium, because hydrogen is a less stable element, but he said precautions can be taken to make it safe.

For instance, the surfaces of hydrogen balloons have a conductive coating to avoid static electricity from building up. Helium balloons, on the other hand, are made of nylon material, which can hold a static charge and possibly discharge it at the wrong moment.

“Unless your balloon was originally built to be compatible with hydrogen, you can’t fly it with hydrogen,” he said.

This will be the first year that Cuneo, and his co-pilot and wife, Barbara Fricke, are flying the hydrogen balloon, called The Pearl.

The contest was scheduled to start Saturday, though weather concerns postponed it 24 hours until Sunday.

The challenge is to fly as far as possible. It’s not uncommon to fly for two days or longer and for balloonists to make it as far as Canada or the East Coast.

Cuneo said his first goal in this year’s race is “to be safe.”
— This article appeared on page A5 of the Albuquerque Journal

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