Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Old Frontier

Somehow, I missed this report on Lawrence Livermore Lab's patent for a drone aircraft powered by a Stirling engine. This would essentially be an environmentally friendly surveillance craft; as such, it strikes me as an exciting step towards our Dark Green Future.

Meanwhile, Coudal Partners reports that Lloyd Zapato has a modest proposal for a new system of pneumatic transportation. Most of you are probably familiar with the pneumatic dispatch systems that delivered mail in old office buildings. What you may not know is that from 1870 on, larger pneumatic systems were devised that transported freight and even people. New York, in the early years of the 20th century, had a pneumatic mail system covering all of Manhattan and some of Brooklyn; a number of European cities still use pneumatic mail systems today, as do many hospitals, banks, and offices in America.

Pneumatic transportation systems have been something of a chimera for inventors; Lockheed, as late as the 1960s, was interested in building a pneumatic shuttle from New York to Philadelphia, which supposedly would've traveled at 390 miles per hour. Nothing came of it, largely because the cost wasn't competitive with that of conventional transportation.

Companies like Swisslog are hard at work improving pneumatic systems (e.g., by using RFID tags to improve tracking and routing), and such improvements are of great interest to people who dream of pneumatic passenger systems. Zapato, for instance, claims that his "Intelli-Tube" system will shuttle us around according to Internet packet-switching protocols:

The Zapato Personal Pneumatic Tube Pod Mark IV (A) featuring: a pressurized, single-occupancy cabin; reinforced nose-cones; gyroscopic stabilization; and full on-board electronics including user-friendly navigation, communication, and entertainment systems. Tapered ends, along with centralized flange placement (B), allow for handling of tighter curves than old-fashioned tubular models. The dual-purpose flanges create an air-tight seal for optimum pneumatic pressure and also contain the transceiver that lets the pod communicate with the Inteli-Tube system. The InteliTube detector ring and routing computer (C) reads pod navigation information and redirects it to its proper destination. The air-pressure regulation ring (D) controls pod velocity and direction.
I have no comment about Zapato's idea, or related schemes like the Russian Flexitaxi, except to say that I feel uncomfortably claustrophobic just thinking about it (despite Zapato's assurance that I'll be able to travel in the nude). But I do think increasing pneumatic freight transport is a very good idea, especially for hub-and-spoke distribution systems. The idea of getting delivery trucks off the road is an attractive one, God knows. Thus, I'm happy to report that a New Jersey firm with the unfortunate name of Tubexpress wants to build "an automated system for transporting general commodity freight through underground concrete pipelines, connecting nation-wide metropolitan centers." The German CargoCap system has similar aims.

The last word, for now, will go to Lawrence Vance and Milton K. Mills, who assessed pneumatic freight systems for the Federal Highway Administration:
[P]neumatic pipeline freight systems, the antecedents of current tube transportation proposals, have had high operational reliability virtually free of accidents and with an extremely low rate of cargo damage. Tube transportation systems offer clear environmental and energy-saving benefits, particularly in comparison with trucks. All current tube transportation proposals envision the use of electrical power, and they are likely to be very clean and energy-efficient. Air pollution from trucks will be reduced in proportion to the number of trucks removed from the road. Underground systems reduce intrusion in environmentally sensitive areas, and they are especially beneficial where surface land values are high, where surface conditions are already congested, or surface routes are unavailable. These are not new issues, but they are becoming more important with nationwide urban growth. Tube transportation has no significant energy advantage over railroads, but if trucks were removed from the congested areas, highway fuel use would be reduced.


Anonymous said...

Where does the electricity for this type of plan come from? Probably from more coal, gas, oil or nuclear generation. I believe the fossil fuel plants would have less stringent emission requirements than the trucks so this may in fact lead to an increase in emissions.

The idea is cool though. Maybe if it were self powered with massive solar arrays every few kilometers...

Phila said...


It depends who you talk to. Most systems talk about using suction and blowing fans, which I imagine could be run with solar power. Municipal waste is sometimes discussed as a possible energy source for systems operating within city limits.

Other ideas involve pressure differentials in a completely airtight system, and (to some extent) gravity...nice idea, but I'm skeptical. Again, though, I'd imagine solar-powered Stirling engines might be feasible here. But I'm no expert on pneumatic pipelines...not even close!

I really don't know how much energy is needed, either. According to this site, a short vertical system currently in use in Japan can move 51 Mg of material an hour with approximately 200kW of power. No idea what implications that has for horizontal transport.

Anonymous said...

Tube type transport rely on lessing the air resistance VS the transported object.

GM and Ford are planning on doing this for their hybred cars, thus beating Toyota.

By sucking so badly as companies these days, the reduced air friction will make thier hybreds work better.