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Enginastery: Food Tubes

Another reason to despise AGW adherents: their handwringing provides justifications for boneheaded ‘environmentally friendly’ ideas like this:

Hungry? Better turn on your linear induction motor and send a metal capsule through an underground polyethylene tube to retrieve some groceries.

That’s the vision of Foodtubes, a UK program that seeks to reduce carbon emissions by building a pipeline-capsule system to deliver food and freight. A series of tubes could ferry 6-foot-long metal bins among neighborhoods, entire cities or even to different countries, moving goods at 60 mph using linear induction motors and intelligent routing software. Foodtubes says it’s “really fast food,” brought to you by the Internet of Things.

“In the long term, we could see an ostrich slaughtered in Cape Town, and delivered to Edinburgh,” said Noel Hodson, Foodtubes’ CEO, in an interview in EWeek Europe.

But something tells me there’s more to this than saving the planet or expeditiously delivering still-steaming ostrich carcasses to your – umm- foodtube

The group wants to start in the London suburb of Croydon with a $625 million pilot network connecting all the borough’s food shops, schools and buildings. Such a network would remove diesel trucks from the road, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 8 percent a year and reducing congestion, the project’s leaders say. [emphasis added]

For some reason, the Simpson’s monorail episode comes to mind.

Assuming it’s not a scam, though, here’s a few reasons off the top of my head why this is a boneheaded idea:

  • Underground polyethylene tube. 3ft in diameter. Right. So the walls would be how many inches thick to keep their shape? And what would be the carbon footprint associated with producing that much polyethylene?
  • What sort of bend radius would a tube carrying a metal capsule 3ft in diameter by 6ft long traveling at 60MPH require? And how would practical limits on bend radii affect the capsule itself, in order to prevent its leading or trailing ends from hitting the walls or wedging the capsule at a turn?
  • Likewise, what sort of shape tolerance would there be on the tube cross-section? And how would it be maintained?
  • Yes, “new 3-foot-diameter tubes are installed all the time”. True, but these are used for the handling of bulk materials (water, sewage, storm drainage, natural gas, etc.), not as a high-speed track for delivery capsules.
  • Where is your average apartment dweller or homeowner going to fit a 3ft diameter tube and end “station”? At best, it will be larger than a typical American refrigerator.
  • How does the system allow for concurrent utilization? It’s the same set of design problems encountered with railroads. Will you need two sets of tubes, one for each direction? How do you launch capsules into the trunk line, and then get them back out again at the end, without either causing congestion at entry and exit points or requiring long acceleration/deceleration spurs to end “stations”?
  • How much room would the switches for each residence require, if the capsules are traveling at 6oMPH in the trunk tube and must be diverted at full speed into the acceleration/deceleration spur?
  • How do these “linear induction” motors power the capsules? Are they built into the capsule and continually pushing it? If so, what is their power source, and what happens to the network when one of them runs out of power? How much otherwise usable cargo space do the motors and their associated power system consume?
  • A 3ft diameter, 6ft long capsule made of metal and capable of moving at 6oMPH for an indefinite number of reuse cycles is going to be fairly heavy. What are the energy requirements associated with accelerating, maintaining at speed, and then decelerating that heavy capsule? How do these energy requirements measure up against the trucks the system is meant to replace?
  • Do these capsules ride on wheels, or do they (like pneumatic canisters) simply slide through the tube on wipers or “skids” of some sort? If wheels, how much heavier do the capsules now become, and how much space is left over for the cargo they are intended to carry?
  • If not on wheels, what happens to the polyethylene tubes when friction with the contact surfaces of a passing capsule heats them up? Or worse, when they are repeatedly heated by multiple passing capsules during periods of heavy utilization?
  • How will the energy requirements be affected if acceleration/deceleration spurs are not used or are limited for practical reasons to very short lengths, but the capsules must still be moving at or near 6oMPH when they enter or exit the trunk tubes?
  • Likewise, what would the resulting high accelerations/decelerations do to the structure of the capsule and the integrity of the contents? Would they make the capsule even heavier? And would they limit the type of cargo that can be sent via these capsules?
  • What happens if a capsule approaching a residential “station” fails to decelerate? Or a capsule entering a trunk tube fails to accelerate sufficiently? Or a capsule abruptly stops somewhere along the line in a trunk tube?
  • How do the economics of this system compare to alternatives? Have the full costs (design, construction, maintenance, emergency repair, etc.) been figured in? Is there an economic benefit significant enough to offset the costs of building and maintaining of a completely new and separate transportation network?
  • And the big question: have they reviewed Denver International Airport’s experience with automated baggage handling systems?

As an aside, did anyone from the marketing department really think through the choice of name for this project? “Food tubes”? Really?

Just looking at this list, I get the impression that a $625M pilot project to link together an entire suburb might be a bit beyond their technology readiness level at the moment. Perhaps they should start with something smaller…like a hundred-yard straightaway.

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