I heard that to construct a hydrogen blimp or airship, the gas bag must be coated with aluminium, which got me confused: doesn't it add significantly to the weight? Is aluminium really used, and is there a specific reason to use it?

I'm also interested in knowing what is the best lightweight material in general for building an airship/blimp bags.

  • $\begingroup$ Why would you think that any coating applied to the structure wouldn't add weight? What do you mean by payload? Its lifting capacity? $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Sep 13, 2016 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer Yes i also thought too myself, it'd add weight to the airship. Can you please provide relevant links or example to bag materials $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2016 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ Its not really called a "bag", its a cell. A single airship is compromised of a number of cells to provide the lifting capacity. I'm still not entirely sure what you are after though, everything you add to the airship beyond the lifting gas adds weight, the trick is having more lift than weight (or equal amounts). I'm not sure there is a "best" material as it may depend on the application... $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Sep 13, 2016 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer Exactly, considering my question, what material should i use to hold the hydrogen in the "cells", any relevant links ? $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2016 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ Aluminum coating actually means some microns of aluminum (vapor deposit). Aluminized PET is known for its impermeability to gases. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Sep 13, 2016 at 18:46

2 Answers 2


Have you ever heard of goldbeater's skin? This was the preferred material before synthetic materials became available.

What is it? Wikipedia says:

Goldbeater's skin—the outer membrane of a calf's intestine—is a parchment traditionally used in the process of making gold leaf by beating, reducing gold into mere 1 μm-thick leaves. […] To manufacture goldbeater's skin, the gut of oxen (or other cattle) is soaked in a dilute solution of potassium hydroxide, washed, stretched, beaten flat and thin, and treated chemically to prevent putrefaction.

From the 1880's on it became the preferred material for gas bags, displacing rubberized cloth or silk which would become brittle quickly. The first man-carrying hydrogen ballon used already silk which had been rubberized by varnishing it with rubber that had been dissolved in turpentine. Again Wikipedia:

Large quantities of goldbeater's skin were used to make the gas bags of early balloons created by the Royal Engineers at Chatham, Kent starting in 1881–82 culminating in 1883 with "The Heron", of 10,000 cu ft capacity. The method of preparing and making gas-tight joins in the skins was known only to a family from Alsatia called Weinling who were employed by the RE for many years. The British had a monopoly on the technique until around 1912 when the Germans adopted the material for the internal gas bags of the "Zeppelin" rigid airships, exhausting the available supply: about 200,000 sheets were used for a typical World War I Zeppelin, while the USS Shenandoah needed 750,000 sheets. The sheets were joined together and folded into impermeable layers.

There is a more detailed description in the Wikipedia article on the ZR-1 which reveals that the goldbeater's skin was reinforced with cotton cloth:

The gas cells were made of goldbeater's skins, one of the most gas-impervious materials known at the time. Named for their use in beating and separating gold leaf, goldbeater's skins were made from the outer membrane of the large intestines of cattle. The membranes were washed and scraped to remove fat and dirt, and then placed in a solution of water and glycerine in preparation for application to the rubberized cotton fabric providing the strength of the gas cells. The membranes were wrung out by hand to remove the water-glycerine storage solution and then rubber-cemented to the cotton fabric and finally given a light coat of varnish.

Today the preferred material is polyethylene therephtalate, a polyester, which is also used for blister packages or soda bottles. By itself, it would have far too high a rate of permeation, therefore it is sealed with a metallic layer of a thickness of only a few atoms. Such metallized films are also used for thermal blankets, in spacesuits, on satellites and for toy helium balloons. To increase its tensile strength, the film is stretched in two perpendicular directions such that the molecule chains become elongated and the film becomes thinner. The result is called biaxially oriented PET (BoPET) and metallized by vapor deposition of a thin layer of aluminium.


"The outside of the envelope is coated with aluminized paint for protection against sunlight." (emphasis added)

Read more: http://www.madehow.com/Volume-3/Airship.html#ixzz4j8ekSPPL

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure how your volume calculation applies to the question. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Jun 5, 2017 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ Well, the aluminized paint was less for protection than for preventing heating in sunlight, like it is done with aluminized plastic foil on spacecraft. Especially when flying in partly cloudy conditions, sun heating would make altitude control impossible. $\endgroup$ Apr 9, 2018 at 18:50

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