A series of (food)tubes

Paul Raven @ 07-12-2010

One of the biggest infrastructural components of a developed nation is the transportation network that moves food around the place… trucks and lorries, trains, that sort of thing, all pollution-heavy technologies that cost a lot of money to run. So what could we replace that food delivery network with? How about… a series of tubes. No, SRSLY:

Imagine a 1,500 kilometer underground FoodTubes ring circling the UK. The packet-switched-style network would connect all major food producers and retailers via 3,000 kilos of smart grid controlled air pressure pipe. The Foodtubes capsules, spaced one meter apart, will race about in gangs of 300 or so at 100kph. As many as 900,000 will be in circulation at any given moment, either zipping around beneath London and Liverpool or being loaded and unloaded at freight dockets.

“Really fast food,” Foodtubes literature calls the concept, with big payoffs for the economy and environment. “Inefficient food transport costs the Earth,” another presentation insists. Huge quantities of diesel are burned to move food trucks—17 billion for each 25 million UK homes, which represents eight percent of all the carbon dioxide mixed into the atmosphere.

“In contrast, we transport 180 times more weight of water than food every day (150 litres/person) in pipelines, with little pollution and no traffic jams,” the project notes. “Multiply by 5 to get the totals for the 120 million USA households.”

Add to that the traffic relieving removal of huge trucks from UK roads. 200,000 of them could be replaced by 17,000 kilos of pipelines and capsules, the group estimates, saving the country 40 million tons of CO2 each year, and the world perhaps as much as four billion if the idea was adopted globally.

That’s got to be the most Jetsons-esque bit of speculative technology I’ve seen in a long while. The FoodTubes people seem pretty confident that the actual technology side is plausible, but are also well aware that “[t]he freight industry is deeply entrenched at every level of government and commerce”. No kidding… which leads me to suspect that, plausible or not, FoodTubes is unlikely to get off the drawing board any time soon.

From King’s Cross to Beijing by rail

Paul Raven @ 16-03-2010

I love to travel by train, me. Though a habit born of necessity in my case (I never took my driving test), there’s so much to recommend it over cars or flying. Especially flying. [image by Let Ideas Compete]

Well, the far edges of my potential-destinations sphere is going to grow considerably in the next ten years or so. Did you know China are the world leaders in high speed train technology? Well, apparently they are, and they’re involved in serious talks with neighbouring nation-states aimed at linking the Chinese rail system to the European one and extending it down onto South East Asia, with China footing the infrastructure bills. Once it’s all done, you could ride from London to Beijing without once needing to take a car, boat or plane… and that’s a journey I’d love to do*.

Interestingly enough (though not surprisingly) there’s more to China’s plans than some sort of idealistic Victorian-era notion of rail travel as symbolic of progress and industrialisation. Indeed, it’s something far more blunt: in exchange for adding considerable value to its partners’ rail networks, China is cutting preferential deals with them on raw materials that it can’t source locally. Remarkably capitalistic thinking for a nominally Communist nation, eh? Talk about moving with the times… might as well make hay while the sun shines, especially if everyone else is waiting out the rain.

[ * – Seriously, if any publishers out there are willing to make a promise to buy the resulting work for a large four-figure sum plus research expenses, there’s a great book to be written once that network is complete, and I’m definitely the guy for the job. Market me as the new (and scruffier) Paul Theroux, perhaps – hell, I’ve got all the cynicism about human nature you’d need to fill his shoes. I might need to work on amping up my condescension toward other cultures, though… ]

The mould, the map and the mass transit system

Paul Raven @ 02-02-2010

slime mould "transit network" (credit: Science/AAAS)There’s still much we can learn from the natural world – and not just the simple things. Nature has a way of solving complex problems without the need for cognition and abstract thought… or even sentience, in many cases. I remember being impressed as a child by the incredible power of tropisms in plants; the simple behaviour of growing toward a light source, for example, can make dumb vegetable matter seem tenacious, determined, relentless.

Well, it turns out that tropism can be pretty efficient, too, as discovered by a research team based in Tokyo. Having already discovered that slime mould can find the shortest route through a maze (provided there’s a food source to entice it), they made a simple map of Japan which used oat flakes to represent major population centres, and let the mould loose on it. End result: the networks of mould connecting the oat flakes closely resembled the country’s existing mass transit networks, or alternative layouts that were theoretically just as efficient. [via BoingBoing; image borrowed from linked article, credit Science/AAAS]

This reminds me of a (possibly apocryphal) story I read a long time ago about some architect employed to lay out a new section of campus for a college or business or something similar. Having set aside a large green space between a bunch of buildings, he was asked where the paths across it should go; his response was that the best way to make an efficient network of paths was to not lay any at all, and to let people walk as they wished across the green space for the first term. By the end of that time, the paths worn into the grass by pedestrians could be used as a map for the asphalters, showing not only the routes required but the comparative traffic densities thereof.

I’m not sure quite where I’m going with this, but I think it has something to do with dethroning rational planning processes in favour of waiting for the best methods or systems to emerge from the chaos of real life. For all our research, for all our academic disciplines and best practices, sometimes just letting things happen as naturally leads to the most efficient solution. I guess the trick is to recognise which problems are best solved in such a way, and which ones aren’t…

All day cruising down the space corridor

Tom James @ 16-09-2009

light_linesAnother gorgeously science-fictional concept: that of the constantly shifting gravitational corridors in the solar system that will allow for the rapid transit of spacecraft around the Sun:

Scientists in the U.S. and Germany are attempting to map the corridors to allow them to be used by spacecraft exploring the solar system. One of the researchers, Shane D. Ross from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in the U.S. described the system as a series of low energy corridors that wind between planets and moons. Once a spacecraft entered a corridor it would “fall” along the tube, much as an object falls to Earth.

If and when there is a substantial demand for intra-system space traffic these channels in space will become like the shipping lanes of the oceans of Earth.

[from Physorg][image from TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³ on flickr]

Solar roadways

Tom James @ 14-09-2009

solarroadwaysOne of those brilliant ideas that I wish I had thought of first: paving roadways with electricity-generating solar cells. Idaho-based startup Solar Roadways have been awarded $100 000 to develop their road-based solar panel technology:

The 12- x 12-foot panels, which each cost $6,900, are designed to be embedded into roads. When shined upon, each panel generates an estimated 7.6 kilowatt hours of power each day. If this electricity could be pumped into the grid, the company predicts that a four-lane, one-mile stretch of road with panels could generate enough power for 500 homes. Although it would be expensive, covering the entire US interstate highway system with the panels could theoretically fulfill the country’s total energy needs.

Furthermore the panels would create road markings with embedded LEDs.

It occurs to me that roads are the perfect media for ground-source heat pumps as the constant passage of cars heats up the road surface, even on cold days. When a new road is laid down (or an existing road is resurfaced) you fill it with the necessary pipework and plug it into the heating systems of nearby houses. Heat pumps would be more useful in urban areas of more northern, colder countries than solar panels due to shorter days in the winter.

[via Physorg][image from Physorg]

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