Helium-filled airships hope in ozone repair
By Daily Bruin Staff
August 18, 1996 9:00 pm
Monday, August 19, 1996
UCLA physicist developed zinc screens to reverse depletionBy
Summer Bruin Contributor
The solution to ozone layer depletion and the preservation of
life on the planet may very well come from UCLA.
At the UCLA Plasma Physics Laboratory, co-directed by physicist
Dr. Alfred Wong, in an attempt to repair the ozone layer, Wong has
developed plans to send fleets of helium-filled airships into
Earth’s stratosphere in order to reverse the destruction of ozone
by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
Wong’s plans call for the use of large football-field sized zinc
screens to be held aloft by helium balloons and for the resulting
platforms to be held in place by "ion engines" that are
"Without a protective ozone layer in the atmosphere, animals and
plants could not exist," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
said, the organization that administers the annual Nobel Prize
awards. The Academy’s statement underscores the importance of the
ozone layer, and thus the need to protect and replenish it, Wong
"Helium gas will occupy the balloons and hydrogen gas can be
used since the platforms are designed to be unmanned … modern
technology allows for remote control," Wong said, describing the
nature of his airships.
Wong also provided some information on his invention called the
"ion engine" that will be used to hold the platforms steady at
points above the earth. "The new design of the ion engine uses
ambient air as fuel and solar power as the electric source," he
said. Wong declined to discuss the engine further pending patent
According to a videotape describing the project, the zinc
screens attached to the stratospheric platforms will react with
sunlight, liberating zinc electrons from the screens.
The freed electrons will then react with chlorine ions Â
the ones responsible for the dismantling of ozone molecules. By
satiating the chlorine ions’ "hunger" for electrons and making them
inert, the ozone is spared, allowing the ozone layer repair
The idea behind the use of zinc screens is "a simple and
brilliant idea," according to Dr. Earle Williams, professor of
atmospheric electricity at the Massachusetts Institute of
"A single chlorine atom can remove as many as 100,000 molecules
of ozone," according to Nobel laureate F. Sherwood Rowland,
professor emeritus in the department of chemistry at UC Irvine.
In order for Wong’s plan to work, 25 platforms will be released
and floated 25 miles above each pole, Wong said. "The first
(platform) will cost $35 million, and thereafter each one will cost
$15 million," he said. The first airship will take two years to
build, and each one after that should take two months, Wong
But not everyone agrees with Wong’s proposal. Opponents do not
believe that his proposed airships will not end the destruction of
the ozone layer.
"In the scientific literature, (Wong) has not done anything to
address the fact that lots of electrons are produced at all levels
of the atmosphere all the time," Sherwood said.
"He has been talking about this (platform project) for at least
a decade and he has yet to address the electrons produced by cosmic
radiation and natural radioactivity; this is based on what he has
published in the scientific literature," Sherwood said.
"He is off by unbelievable factors in the scale-up of this
project," he added.
Williams was less severe in his critique of Wong’s proposal.
"There may be some impractical aspects (to the project)," he
"It is an idea which is simple and brilliant in concept but may
be impractical to implement," he continued, saying that the project
tackles the problem from many different fields, such as physics,
chemistry and engineering.
Wong publicly responded to his critics this year and said that
"my critics did not understand how energy sources in the
environment can be used for (fixing the ozone)," he said.
"They have ignored effects of charges in the atmosphere in their
calculations. Disputes in science can be settled by experiments. In
my opinion, it is not wise to consider large-scale schemes
impossible unless one has performed outdoor experiments," Wong
Wong is now in the process of gaining investments for the
approximate $500 million cost of the platforms. According to Wong
and his associates, these investors are not so much interested in
saving the ozone layer as they are in using the platforms as a
means to improve earth communication capabilities.
Instead of putting satellites into space, which entails a much
higher cost and more "space junk," the platforms would reportedly
carry relays for cellular phone systems, television, global
positioning systems and weather sensors.
Wong said that he believes very strongly in his concept and
"Our whole survival depends upon the solving of the ozone
problem," he said. "No problem is too big to tackle."
PATRICK LAM/Daily Bruin
Dr. Alfred Wong, a professor of physics and astrophysics, stands
before his atmospheric chamber.