Tuesday, April 03, 2007

a plea to engineers


Today the French broke a speed record with a train zipping along at 575 km/h (357 mph), which is great news for environmentalists. The engineers at Alstom (France) posted a video of the run--you have to see it to believe it ...

This is the future, and the future is better than Americans might hope. U.S. politicians collect paychecks from the oil companies, blister the climate, and drive in their bricks-on-wheels with stickers that say "support our troops," "hating the planet," or "Believe in Jesus, not in climate climate," but the evil cowboys in their black hats are now finally riding into the sunset, to the relief of the six billion other people on the warming globe.

Meanwhile, intelligent transportation designs are being embraced around the world. For the voyeuristically inclined, here's eye-candy from abroad: first the German Intercity Express 3T ...

... or the Japanese Nozomi Shinkansen 500 ...

... and the newest bullet online, the Taiwanese Gao-Tie 700:

Talk about guilt-free high tech! This is how it works. First you construct a straight and level pathway via tunnels and viaducts. Next you lay down the track, but not like you see in the U.S.--the ties are supposed to be concrete, not some toxic creosote-drenched wood, and the rails are supposed to be continuously welded ribbons of steel, not some clickety-clack iron strips. Intelligent transportation design means a third step: you plant catenary poles, string overhead wire, and flip the switch, with energy preferably from clean hydroelectric power. (If you don't have hydroelectric plants, go nuclear power, compared to fossil power, and in light of climate change, it's the lesser of two evils.) And now you can run your electric trains. Windows and doors are soundproof and airtight to create a quiet ambiente and to avoid popping eardrums at high speeds and inside tunnels. So lean back, sip your red wine, watch the catenary poles blur into thin air, and enjoy clean, civilized travel at 300 mph.

Trains are for smarties. Here's why. Trains and cars use energy for motion, and both spend most of their energy to overcome friction and resistance. A train is a long snake of boxes on wheels that plows through the air. An automobile is a single box on wheels that overcomes wind resistance individually. A bullet train can carry a thousand people. A cargo train can carry a hundred containers. Trains face wind resistance only at the trainhead. Compare that to the energy expenditures of a thousand single cars or a hundred single trucks. Each of them faces wind resistance at its own bumper, hood, and windshield. The individual movement of isolated boxes is not efficient. There's more: trains have steel wheels on steel rails, with tiny points of contact (steel doesn't give). Wheel surface and rail head are polished smooth; there's little friction (which is why trains can't stop at railroad crossings). Roadways and automobiles, though, are designed for quick acceleration and short brakepaths. So cars and trucks use inflated rubber tires with huge contact areas (inflated rubber gives). The tire profile and the roadway surface aren't smooth; rubber has high friction, and blacktop feels like sandpaper. It has to be this way, otherwise driving wouldn't be safe, and trucks couldn't stop at railroad crossings. Automobiles are the least energy-efficient and the most power-hungry mode of transport ever designed.

Ecologically sound ground travel is no technological problem. But environmental air travel doesn't have a technological solution yet. We have friends, families, and jobs around the world. We need to fly. But flying adds to the carbon load and worsens the world climate. All commercial airplanes in existence use fossil fuel. Clearly, this is retarded. Here's a plea to the engineers at Airbus and Boeing: can you gals and guys come up with better flight power designs? Can you build us clean planes? Please? Like, now? So, I beg you, start thinking outside the box, break out the slipstick, and start doing some real, creative, and future-oriented work.

Clock's ticking.


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