Category Archives: Energy

How to make a Star Wars light saber

A couple of years ago I explained how to make a free-floating combat drone: , like the ones in Halo or Mass Effect. They could realistically be made in the next couple of decades and are very likely to feature heavily in far future warfare, or indeed terrorism. I was chatting to a journalist this morning about light sabers, another sci-fi classic. They could also be made in the next few decades, using derivatives of the same principles. A prototype is feasible this side of 2050.

I’ll ignore the sci-fi wikis that explain how they are meant to work, which mostly approximate to fancy words for using magic or The Force and various fictional crystals. On the other hand, we still want something that will look and sound and behave like the light saber.

The handle bit is pretty obvious. It has to look good and contain a power source and either a powerful laser or plasma generator. The traditional problem with using a laser-based saber is that the saber is only meant to be a metre long but laser beams don’t generally stop until they hit something. Plasma on the other hand is difficult to contain and needs a lot of energy even when it isn’t being used to strike your opponent. A laser can be switched on and off and is therefore better. But we can have some nice glowy plasma too, just for fun.

The idea is pretty simple then. The blade would be made of graphene flakes coated with carbon nanotube electron pipes, suspended using the same technique I outlined in the blog above. These could easily be made to form a long cylinder and when you want the traditional Star Wars look, they would move about a bit, giving the nice shimmery blurry edge we all like so that the tube looks just right with blurry glowy edges. Anyway, with the electron pipe surface facing inwards, these flakes would generate the internal plasma and its nice glow. They would self-organize their cylinder continuously to follow the path of the saber. Easy-peasy. If they strike something, they would just re-organize themselves into the cylinder again once they are free.

For later models, a Katana shaped blade will obviously be preferred. As we know, all ultimate weapons end up looking like a Katana, so we might as well go straight to it, and have the traditional cylindrical light saber blade as an optional cosmetic envelope for show fights. The Katana is a universal physics result in all possible universes.

The hum could be generated by a speaker in the handle if you have absolutely no sense of style, but for everyone else, you could simply activate pulsed magnetic fields between the flakes so that they resonate at the required band to give your particular tone. Graphene flakes can be magnetized so again this is perfectly consistent with physics. You could download and customize hums from the cloud.

Now the fun bit. When the blade gets close to an object, such as your opponent’s arm, or your loaf of bread in need of being sliced, the capacitance of the outer flakes would change, and anyway, they could easily transmit infrared light in every direction and pick up reflections. It doesn’t really matter which method you pick to detect the right moment to activate the laser, the point is that this bit would be easy engineering and with lots of techniques to pick from, there could be a range of light sabers on offer. Importantly, at least a few techniques could work that don’t violate any physics. Next, some of those self-organizing graphene flakes would have reflective surface backings (metals bond well with graphene so this is also a doddle allowed by physics), and would therefore form a nice reflecting surface to deflect the laser beam at the object about to be struck. If a few flakes are vaporized, others would be right behind them to reflect the beam.

So just as the blade strikes the surface of the target, the powerful laser switches on and the beam is bounced off the reflecting flakes onto the target, vaporizing it and cauterizing the ends of the severed blood vessels to avoid unnecessary mess that might cause a risk of slipping. The shape of the beam depends on the locations and angles of the reflecting surface flakes, and they could be in pretty much any shape to create any shape of beam needed, which could be anything from a sharp knife to a single point, severing an arm or drilling a nice neat hole through the heart. Obviously, style dictates that the point of the saber is used for a narrow beam and the edge is used as a knife, also useful for cutting bread or making toast (the latter uses transverse laser deflection at lower aggregate power density to char rather than vaporize the bread particles, and toast is an option selectable by a dial on the handle).

What about fights? When two of these blades hit each other there would be a variety of possible effects. Again, it would come down to personal style. There is no need to have any feel at all, the beams could simple go through each other, but where’s the fun in that? Far better that the flakes also carry high electric currents so they could create a nice flurry of sparks and the magnetic interactions between the sabers could also be very powerful. Again, self organisation would allow circuits to form to carry the currents at the right locations to deflect or disrupt the opponent’s saber. A galactic treaty would be needed to ensure that everyone fights by the rules and doesn’t cheat by having an ethereal saber that just goes right through the other one without any nice show. War without glory is nothing, and there can be no glory without a strong emotional investment and physical struggle mediated by magnetic interactions in the sabers.

This saber would have a very nice glow in any color you like, but not have a solid blade, so would look and feel very like the Star Wars saber (when you just want to touch it, the lasers would not activate to slice your fingers off, provided you have read the safety instructions and have the safety lock engaged). The blade could also grow elegantly from the hilt when it is activated, over a second or so, it would not just suddenly appear at full length. We need an on/off button for that bit, but that could simply be emotion or thought recognition so it turns on when you concentrate on The Force, or just feel it.

The power supply could be a battery or graphene capacitor bank of a couple of containers of nice chemicals if you want to build it before we can harness The Force and magic crystals.

A light saber that looks, feels and behaves just like the ones on Star Wars is therefore entirely feasible, consistent with physics, and could be built before 2050. It might use different techniques than I have described, but if no better techniques are invented, we could still do it the way I describe above. One way or another, we will have light sabers.


Driverless pod transport system

I badly documented my latest idea of an ultra-cheap transport system in I think I need another blog to separate out the idea from the background. Look at my previous blog for the appropriate pictures.

We’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm now for electric cars and in parallel, for self-driving cars. I support both of those, and I like the new Next system that is extremely close to my own ideas from 1987 when I first looked at cars from a performance engineer’s viewpoint and realized that self driving cars could drive millimeters apart, reducing drag and greatly reducing congestion. I estimated back then that they could improve road capacity by a factor of 5. Many others have since simulated such systems and the same factor of 5 has popped up a few times now.

Self-driving pods and electrically assisted bike lane

Self-driving pods and electrically assisted bike lane


Next have visualized the same idea nicely, but the world is more receptive now. for their nice video, although I’d envisage rather more pods in most areas, almost filling the entire road area.

I’ve lectured in vain many times to persuade authorities to divert investment away from 20th century rail system to roads using self driving cars. The UK’s HS2 system is no more than lipstick on a 20th century pig. Pig it remains, obsolete ages ago, though our idiotic government remains determined to build it anyway, wasting £70Bn even by charitable estimates. Systems similar to Next’s could replace HS2 and reduce journey times for everyone, not just those whose starting point and destination are very close to the terminals. I wish them well. But I think there is an even better solution, that is feasible in a similar time-frame, and I have no doubt they could pick it up and run with it. Or Tesla or Google or Apple or Toyota or any other car company.

My realization is that we don’t need self driving cars either. Take exactly the Next system, with its nicely trapezoidal pods that nest together. They will need a smooth road surface if they are to ride in contact or millimeters apart, or they will constantly bump into each other and create irritating vibration. Make them ride a centimeter or two apart and it will solve that.

Then start looking at each part of the system.

They each have a computer on board to drive the pod. You don’t need that, because everyone has a smart phone now which already has formidable computing power and is connected to the cloud, which has vast amounts more. Together, the entire system can be easily managed without any computers on board at all.

Similarly, much of the internal decor in cars is there to make it look pretty, offer interfaces, information or displays for passenger entertainment. All of that could easily be done by any half-decent augmented reality visor.

Then look at the power supply and engines. We should at the very least expect electric motors to replace fossil fuel engines. Most self-driving cars have expensive batteries, using scarce resources, and lithium batteries may catch fire or explode. So some systems in R&D now use the idea of super-capacitors instead. Furthermore, these could be recharged periodically as they drive over special mats on the road surface, so they could be smaller, lighter and cheaper. Even that is now being trialed. So these systems would already be better in almost every way to today’s transport.

However, we don’t even need the electric motors and super-capacitors. Instead we could update the ancient but well-proven idea of the linear induction motor and make factory-produced mats containing circuits that can be instructed to make steerable magnetic wells that pull the cars along, as well as navigate them correctly at every junction. Again, the management can all be done by the cloud plus smartphones, and the circuits can reconfigure on command as each pod passes over them. So they won’t need batteries, or super-capacitor banks, or engines or motors. They would just be pulled along by magnetic fields, with no moving parts (apart from the pods as a whole of course) to go wrong, and almost nothing needing expensive maintenance. Apart from wheels, suspension and brakes.

So the driverless pod would not need a built-in computer, it would not need an engine or motor, and not need a battery or super-capacitor. Already it would be vastly cheaper.

The last remaining moving parts can also be dispensed with. If the pod rides above a mat that can generate the magnetic fields to drag it along, why not let other magnetic fields suspend it above the ground? That would mean it doesn’t need suspension, or wheels. Conventional brakes could be dispensed with using a combination of magnetic fields for normal braking,  combined with a fallback of gravity and brake strips for emergency braking. Reducing the levitation field would create friction with the road surface and stop the vehicle very quickly, far more quickly than a conventional car can stop, only really limited by comfort limitations.

So my proposal is a system that would look and behave very similar to what Next have designed, but would not need engines, batteries, on-board computers or even wheels. My pods would be no more than simple boxes with comfy seats (or empty for freight transport) and a couple of strips on the bottom and might cost no more than $200 each. The road would have a factory-made mat laid on top for the magnetic well trains and levitation. Adapting a road to the system would be an overnight laying out of the mat and plugging it in to the electricity supply. In cold seasons, that electricity supply could also power on-board heating (but that would incur extra expense of course)


transport system

It won’t be long before such a system could be built. I can’t see any fundamental barriers to a prototype appearing next year if some entrepreneur were to try. It could make self driving car systems, even Next’s current proposals, redundant before they are implemented. If we were to change the direction of current plans to utilize the latest technology, rather than using ideas from 30 years ago, we could have a cheaper, better, more environmentally friendly system even faster. We could probably build such as system in every major city for what we are going to waste on HS2. Surely that is worth a try.


The future of washing machines

Ultrasonic washing ball

Ultrasonic washing ball

For millennia, people washed clothes by stirring, hitting, squeezing and generally agitating them in rivers or buckets of water. The basic mechanism is to loosen dirt particles and use the water to wash them away or dissolve them.

Mostly, washing machines just automate the same process, agitating clothes in water, sometimes with detergent, to remove dirt from the fabric. Most use detergent to help free the dirt particles but more recently, some use ultrasound to create micro-cavitation bubbles and when they collapse, the shock waves help release the particles. That means the machines can clean at lower temperatures with little or no detergent.

It occurred to me that we don’t really need the machine to tumble the clothes. A ball about the size of a grapefruit could contain batteries and a set of ultrasonic transducers and could be simply chucked in a bucket with the clothes. It could create the bubbles and clean the clothes. Some basic engineering has to be done to make it work but it is entirely feasible.

One of the problems is that ultrasound doesn’t penetrate very far. To solve that, two mechanisms can be used in parallel. One is to let the ball roam around the clothes, and that could be done by changing its density by means of a swim bladder and using gravity to move it up and down, or maybe by adding a few simple paddles or cilia so it can move like a bacterium or by changing its shape so that as it moves up and down, it also moves sideways. The second mechanism is to use phased array ultrasonic transducers so that the beams can be steered and interfere constructively, thereby focusing energy and micro-cavitation generation around the bucket in a chosen pattern.

Making such a ball could be much cheaper than a full sized washing machine, making it ideal for developing countries. Transducers are cheap, and the software to drive them and steer the beams is easy enough and replicable free of charge once developed.

It would contain a rechargeable battery that could use a simple solar panel charging unit (which obviously could be used to generate power for other purposes too).

Such a device could bring cheap washing machine capability to millions of people who can’t afford a full sized washing machine or who are not connected to electricity supplies. It would save time, water and a great deal of drudgery at low expense.



Why Uber will soon be history due to a category error

I have nothing against Uber, I’ve never used them, or Hailo, but they are just as dispensable as their drivers. My next blog will be about my vision for an all-electric zero-emission driverless transport system and it has no use for Uber.

However, before I write that, I have a small issue to clear up. A couple of weeks ago I tweeted that the London cabbies who were protesting against Uber are very proud of spending years to learn the best way to get from A to B, yet a satnav device can calculate the best route in a few seconds (and though my tweet didn’t even go that far, any half-decent satnav will also take full account of the real-time traffic and congestion situation). A straightforward fact you might think, but a great many taxi drivers took offence at it, and not just in London. One taxi firm near Boston, even made a crude and ineffective attempt at a cyber-attack. Don’t give up the day job guys!

A future transport system using driverless cars doesn’t need drivers of course but that doesn’t mean that all of them will be out of a job. Carrying luggage, helping people with mobility problems and providing company and conversation on the way is a very valuable service too, as are provision of local tourist advice, general information, strongly held opinions on every possible topic and other personality-based charms. We won’t NEED taxi drivers, but I for one would really miss them.

Uber thinks they are well on top of the driverless car trend:

Perhaps it is just as well they want to go driverless because I’m told many of their drivers are starting to get angry with Uber too. Uber is wrong if they think driverless cars will make them the future. Possibly they will benefit for a short while during technology transition, but the simple fact is that future transport systems don’t need Uber or Hailo any more than they need taxi drivers. Since Uber pays very little tax on their large revenues, they are also putting themselves on the wrong side of public opinion, and that is not a very clever thing to do at all: Their worst error though is that their vision of future transport technology is focused on the current state of the art, not the future. If you are planning a future strategy, you absolutely should not base it on today’s technology.

They say they will buy all of Tesla’s output of self-driving cars: Well, I hope they can make them pay fast, because they will be obsolete very soon indeed. Uber won’t survive long, not if they make this kind of error. Technology will soon make Uber irrelevant too, and unless they improve their corporate values, not many will bother to turn up at their funeral unless it is to gloat.

Google will presumably also want their self-driving cars out there too. The rest of the car industry also won’t go down without a fight, so there will be a many a battle to establish market share in self-driving cars. Apple will want all their self-driving cars out there too. Until 5 minutes ago, I thought there was just the tiniest possibility that Apple were going to be a bit smarter. Maybe Apple had noticed the same thing I had. But no, a quick Google search confirms that Apple have made the same mistake too, and just bought in the wrong guy: These companies have other businesses so won’t really care much if one project goes down. Google, Apple, Samsung, LG et al will be far more likely to flourish in the real future than Uber or Hailo.

The error is very serious. You’ve made it, I’ve made it. The entire auto industry has made it. It’s a category error.

We’ve all been conflating ‘driverless’ and ‘self-driving’. They are not the same.

The future doesn’t need self-driving cars, it needs driverless cars. They both save lives, save the environment, save resources, save congestion, save time, and save cost. One saves a little, the other saves a LOT.

The entire car industry, as well as Uber, Google, Tesla, and even Apple have all bet on the wrong one, but some have better chance of surviving the consequences their errors than others. I’ll outline the basic principles of the technology waves that can wipe out self-driving cars in my next blog, and actually since the technology is easier in many ways than getting self-driving working, it could even bypass them. We may never see an age of self-driving cars. We can get a far better system, far faster and far cheaper.

It is time to consider any investments you have in the transport industry. Severe turbulence ahead!

The future of ISIS

I was going to write about the future of intelligence but I just saw a nice graphic by The Economist on the spread of ISIS:

so I’ll write about them instead.

The main Economist article is

I won’t summarize their article about the current state of affairs; read it yourself. I can add a few comments to highlight the future though.

Surveys on Muslim attitudes to violence consistently show that most Muslims reject violence done in the name of Islam: 65-75%. That is the numeric range that describes the reality of ‘the vast overwhelming majority of peace-loving Muslims’ we see emphasized by politicians and media whenever an Islamic terrorist act occurs, two thirds to three quarters according to when and where the surveys have been done. The last high quality survey in the UK arrived at the figure 68%, comfortably in that range. The other side of the same statistics is that 32% of British Muslims stated some support for violence.

ISIS draws from that quarter or third of Muslims who are comfortable with using violent means to further or defend Islamic interests. Like the IRA in the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’, with very similar support statistics, a small number of actual front-line terrorists can rely on about a third of their host population for their support, even though those most of those people will never actually join in the actual violence. The key factors in both situations are that a group feels aggrieved about something, and some people have stepped forward to fight under the banner against that something. For the IRA, it was perceived oppression of the Catholic republican community that wanted to return to a United Ireland. For ISIS, it is initially the perceived war against Islam, even if no-one else has admitted to there being one, amplified by the dream of producing a strict, fully Islamic state that can act as a hub for stricter Islamification of other regions.

Like the IRA, ISIS offers potential glory, a perverted form of status and glamour, excitement, and even a promise of paradise to young people with otherwise few opportunities in life who want to be someone. Picking up a gun and joining jihad compares favorably to some people to standing unemployed on a street corner, surrounded by a nation of people of whom almost all are doing better than you in life.

That lack of hope is abundant and growing, but in the UK at least, it is largely self-inflicted, since immigrant Muslim communities often separate themselves from the rest of their host society and thereby the opportunities otherwise on offer. Muslims who integrate with the rest of society cope happily, but many choose not to integrate and for them, it is a spiral downwards that provides a fertile ground for radicalization. Detecting and subduing radicalization is more difficult if the underlying causes are increasing.

The Middle East has huge problems, and many of them increase hostility to the West as well as between countries in the region. That also will increase. Current income from oil will reduce greatly in the next decades as the world moves away from oil towards shale gas, nuclear and renewables for energy. As income shrinks in an already unstable environment, the number of that third willing to turn to violence will increase. Add to that better communications, growing awareness of western freedoms and lifestyles and potential for new forms of government and those pressures are amplified further.

That will increase the supply for ISIS. it is easy to manipulate attitudes in a community and turn people to violence if an oppressor can be identified and blamed for all the problems, and pretty much the entire West ticks that box if the facts are cherry-picked or omitted, distorted and spun enough in the right way by skilled marketers. ISIS are good marketers.

Extreme violence by a large enough minority can force most peace-loving people into submission. ISIS have shown quite enough barbarity to scare many into compliance, terrifying communities and making them easier to conquer long before their forces’ arrival. Many of the hopeless young people in those newly conquered territories are willing to join in to gain status and rewards for themselves. Many others will join in to avoid punishment for themselves or their families. And so it rolls on.

The West’s approach to holding them back so far has been airstrikes on front lines and drone attacks on leaders. However, ISIS is something of a cloud based leadership. Although they have a somewhat centralized base in Iraq and Syria, they make their appeal to Islamists everywhere, cultivating support and initiating actions even before they enter an area. It is easy enough to kill a few leaders but every extremist preacher everywhere is another potential leader and if there is a steady stream of new recruits, some of those will be good leadership material too.

As the Economist says, ISIS have limited success so far outside of Iraq and Syria, but that could change swiftly if critical mass can be achieved in countries already showing some support. Worldwide, Muslim communities feel a strong disconnect from other cultures, which skilled manipulators can easily turn into a feeling of oppression. Without major modernization from within Islam, and of which there is little sign so far, that disconnect will greatly increase as the rest of the world’s population sees accelerating change technologically, economically, socially, culturally and politically. With so much apparently incompatible with Islamic doctrines as interpreted and presented by many of today’s Islamic leaders, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise from increasing disconnect. The gap between Islam and non-Islam won’t close, it will widen.

ISIS welcomes and encourages that growing gap. It provides much of the increasing pressure needed to convert a discontented young person into an Islamic extremist and potential recruit. It pushes a community closer to the critical mass or resentment and anger they need.

The rest of the world can’t change Islam. No matter how much politicians try to appease Islamists, offer concessions to Muslim communities, or indeed to repeatedly assert that Islamic violence has ‘nothing to do with Islam’, the gap will grow between strict Islamic values and everyone else’s. ISIS will be guaranteed a stream of enthusiastic recruits. Those Muslims to whom stricter interpretations of their religion appeal are diluted throughout Muslim populations, they are not separate groups that live apart, that can easily be identified and addressed with outreach campaigns or surveillance. Only by reducing advocacy of strict Islamic values can the gap stop widening and begin to close. That obviously can only be done by Muslim communities themselves. Any attempt to do so by those outside of Islam would simply add to perceived oppression and act as justification towards extremism. Furthermore, that reduction of advocacy of extremist interpretations of Islam would have to be global. If it persists anywhere, then that region will act as a source of violence and a draw to wannabe terrorists.

So like most other observers, it seems obvious to me that the solution to ISIS or any other extremist Islamic groups yet to emerge has to come from within Islam. Muslims will eventually have to adapt to the 21st century. They will have to modernize. That won’t be easy and it won’t happen quickly, but ISIS and its variants will thrive and multiply until that happens.

Powering electric vehicles in the city

Simple stuff today just to stop my brain seizing up, nothing terribly new.

Grid lock is usually a term often used to describe interlocking traffic jams. But think about a canal lock, used to separate different levels of canal. A grid lock could be used to manage the different levels of stored and kinetic energy within a transport grid, keeping it local as far as possible to avoid transmission losses, and transferring it between different parts of the grid when necessary.

Formula 1 racing cars have energy recovery systems that convert kinetic energy to stored electrical energy during braking – Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). In principle, energy could be shared between members of a race team by transmitting it from one car to another instead of simply storing it on board. For a city-wide system, that makes even more sense. There will always be some vehicles coasting, some braking, some accelerating and some stopped. Storing the energy on board is fine, but requires large capacitor banks or batteries, and that adds very significant cost. If an electrical grid allowed the energy to be moved around between vehicles, each vehicle would only need much smaller storage so costs would fall.

I am very much in favor of powering electric vehicles by using inductive pads on the road surface to transmit energy via coils on the car underside as the vehicles pass over them.  Again, this means that vehicles can manage with small batteries or capacitor banks. Since these are otherwise a large part of the cost, it makes electric transport much more cost-effective. The coils on the road surface could be quite thin, making them unattractive to metal thieves, and perhaps ultimately could be made of graphene once that is cheap to produce.

Moving energy among the many coils only needs conventional electrical grid technology. Peer to peer electrical generation business models are developing too to sell energy between households without the energy companies taking the lion’s share. Electricity can even be packetised by writing an address and header with details of the sender account and the quantity of energy in the following packet. Since overall energy use will fluctuate somewhat, the infrastructure also needs some storage to hold local energy surpluses and feed them back into accelerating vehicles as required, and if demand is too low, to store energy in local batteries. If even that isn’t sufficient capacity, then the grid might open grid locks to overflow larger surpluses onto other regions of the city or onto the main grid. Usually however, there would be an inflow of energy from the main grid to power all the vehicles, so transmission in the reverse direction would be only occasional.

Such a system keeps most energy local, reducing transmission losses and simplifying signalling, whilst allowing local energy producers to be included and enabling storage for renewable energy. As one traffic stream slows, another can recycle that same energy to accelerate. It reduces the environmental demands of running a transport system, so has both cost and environmental benefits.



Stimulative technology

You are sick of reading about disruptive technology, well, I am anyway. When a technology changes many areas of life and business dramatically it is often labelled disruptive technology. Disruption was the business strategy buzzword of the last decade. Great news though: the primarily disruptive phase of IT is rapidly being replaced by a more stimulative phase, where it still changes things but in a more creative way. Disruption hasn’t stopped, it’s just not going to be the headline effect. Stimulation will replace it. It isn’t just IT that is changing either, but materials and biotech too.

Stimulative technology creates new areas of business, new industries, new areas of lifestyle. It isn’t new per se. The invention of the wheel is an excellent example. It destroyed a cave industry based on log rolling, and doubtless a few cavemen had to retrain from their carrying or log-rolling careers.

I won’t waffle on for ages here, I don’t need to. The internet of things, digital jewelry, active skin, AI, neural chips, storage and processing that is physically tiny but with huge capacity, dirt cheap displays, lighting, local 3D mapping and location, 3D printing, far-reach inductive powering, virtual and augmented reality, smart drugs and delivery systems, drones, new super-materials such as graphene and molybdenene, spray-on solar … The list carries on and on. These are all developing very, very quickly now, and are all capable of stimulating entire new industries and revolutionizing lifestyle and the way we do business. They will certainly disrupt, but they will stimulate even more. Some jobs will be wiped out, but more will be created. Pretty much everything will be affected hugely, but mostly beneficially and creatively. The economy will grow faster, there will be many beneficial effects across the board, including the arts and social development as well as manufacturing industry, other commerce and politics. Overall, we will live better lives as a result.

So, you read it here first. Stimulative technology is the next disruptive technology.


Fusions needs jet engine architecture, not JET

Warning: some or all of what you will read here might be nonsense, but hey, faint heart ne’er won fair maid.

Lockheed Martin are in the news with yet another claim of a fusion breakthrough. It looks exciting, but some physicists are already claiming that it won’t work. I haven’t done the sums so I don’t have a sensible opinion on it. I am filing it mentally with all the other frequently claimed breakthroughs and will wait and see, not holding my breath. I really hope they succeed though. If they don’t, then their claim is just hot air, and if they can do that, then why can’t I? So here is how I would do the easy bits of the top level design, leaving the hard sums to others.

Joint European Torus = JET, and the new Lockheed Martin approach is meant to be about the same size as a jet engine. I couldn’t help making the obvious mental leap. Long ago, plane engines used internal combustion engines and propellers. The along came 40-year-old Frank Whittle and changed the world with his jet engine invention:

Whittle and his jet engine

Picture copyright Popperfoto

Smart bunny!

Standing on his (and Rutherford’s) shoulders, I had to ask whether we can’t use a jet engine arrangement to harness fusion. We don’t need the propulsion, just the ejected products to extract heat from, fairly conventionally. As lazy as researchers can be these days, I typed ‘jet engine fusion’ into google images. Way down the page was one that I thought had already used the idea, as a spaceship propulsion system, but bringing up the page, it doesn’t, it just uses a pretty conventional reaction chamber and ejects the fusion products out through a nozzle to provide propulsion force.

So either the idea is so obviously flawed that nobody has even bothered to investigate it far enough to bother making graphics, or a major case of group-think has affected the entire physicist community. Bit of a gamble proceeding then, but, if you have a few billion to gamble, here’s how to do fusion:

Jet style nuclear fusion process

Jet style nuclear fusion process

Intake a continuous stream of deuterium and tritium.

Compress it (using some of the energy from the fusion process)  and optionally heat  or compress it conventionally to reduce energy deficit in final stage.

Feed it into the narrow reaction pathway, which is a strongly confined tunnel surrounded by an Archimedes screw of high intensity lasers.

Generate continuous heating via lasers as the plasma passes along the reaction pathway (using some of the energy from the process) until fusion finally occurs in the short fusion zone.

Allow hot fused products to expand in an expansion chamber

Pass through suitable heat exchanger to make steam/molted sodium or whatever takes your fancy.

Feed some of the energy harvested to drive compressors, heaters, and obviously the lasers. Very possibly some of the products might be useful feedstock for production of lasing medium.

Bob’s your uncle.

OK, the intake and compression bits are quite jet enginy, and using some of the energy produced to power the earlier stages is very jet enginy. We don’t have any burning of gases so it isn’t quite the same. But in the interests of extracting as much from Whittle as possible, I kept it nice and circular with as few components as possible in the way, arranging the lasers in a continuous spiral (inspired by the Archimedes screw), so that the plasma heats up as it passes through them until it starts to fuse. There is no actual screw, its just that if all the lasers are mounted and directed towards the plasma jet as it heats, the external arrangement would look very similar, and the effect would be that the temperature and proximity to fusing would rise as the plasma passes through it.  You still need serious magnetic confinement to prevent the plasma touching the walls, but there is nothing physical in the path to touch, just magnetic fields and lots of laser beam.

I can’t see any immediate reasons why it couldn’t work, and it offers some definite advantages over a torus approach or exploding pellets. It takes ideas from all the other approaches so it isn’t really new, just a rearrangement.

Doesn’t Lockheed Martin make jet engines too?

Diesel – 4.4 times more deaths than by road accidents

In Dec 2010, the UK government released a report estimating that air pollution causes a ‘mortality burden’ of 340,000 years of life spread over an affected population of 200,000, equivalent to about 29,000 deaths each year in the UK, or a drop in average life expectancy across the whole population of 6 months. It also costs the NHS £27B per year. See:

There is no more recent report as yet, although the figures in it refer to 2008.

Particulate matter (PM) is the worst offender and diesel engines are one of the main sources of PM, but they also emit some of the other offenders. COMEAP estimates that a quarter of PM-related deaths are caused by diesel engines, 7250 lives per year. Some of the PM comes from private vehicles. To save regeneration costs, some diesel drivers apparently remove the diesel particulate filters from their cars, which is illegal, and doing so would mean failing an MOT. See:

The government encouraged people to go diesel by offering significant tax advantages. Road tax and company car tax are lower for diesels, resulting in more than half of new cars now being diesels. ( Almost all public buses and taxis and still many trains are diesel.

7250 lives per year caused by diesel vehicles is a lot, and let’s remember that was an estimate based on 2008 particulates. There are many more diesels on our roads now than then ( shows the number of diesel cars licensed has increased from 7163 to 10,064), but fuel efficiency has also improved in that period so total fuel use hasn’t increased much, only from 8788 to 9197 thousand tons of diesel. So the result isn’t as bad as it could have been and the proportionately scaled figure for 2012 would be 7587 deaths from diesel emissions. In 2013 there were only 1730 road deaths so 4.4 times as many people were killed by diesel emissions than road accidents.

I thought it would be interesting to compare deaths from just buses to those in road accidents, since buses are thought of by many as some sort of panacea whereas some of us see them as filthy environmental monsters. The proportion of diesel used by buses has fallen from 17% to 13.7% between 2008 and 2012. (I couldn’t find figures for the numbers of taxis, also officially included in public transport, since the fuel usage stats lump all cars together, but then I’ve never understood why taxis should be listed as public transport anyway.)

17% of the 7250 figure for 2008 gives 1232 deaths from public transport diesel emissions compared to 2538 road deaths that year, roughly half as many. However, for 2012, 13.7% of 7587 is 1039 deaths from public transport diesel emissions compared to 1754 people killed in road accidents in 2012.  That ratio has grown from 48.5% to 59% in just 4 years. Buses may use less fuel than cars but they certainly aren’t saints.

So, headline result: 60% as many people are killed by diesel emissions from buses as in road accidents, but altogether, 4.4 times as many people die due to diesel. The government is very noisy when it comes to reducing road deaths, but it should look at the far bigger gains that would be made by reducing diesel use. Perhaps it is time that the deaths arising from diesel emissions should be added to the road deaths figures. At least then there might be some better action against it.

As I wrote in a recent blog


more still could be saved by just slightly improving the NHS. The £27B per year health costs saved by getting rid of diesel might go some way to doing both.

As a final observation, diesel was encouraged so much because it should help to reduce CO2 emissions, seen as a major contributor to global warming. In the last year or two, the sensitivity to CO2 emissions has been observed to be lower than originally thought. However, another major contribution to warming is the black carbon PM, noted especially for its contribution to melting glaciers by making them darker, also arising in large part from diesel. The efforts to reduce one contributor have increased another. Diesel doesn’t even solve the problem it was aimed at, but still causes others.

WMDs for mad AIs

We think sometimes about mad scientists and what they might do. It’s fun, makes nice films occasionally, and highlights threats years before they become feasible. That then allows scientists and engineers to think through how they might defend against such scenarios, hopefully making sure they don’t happen.

You’ll be aware that a lot more talk of AI is going on again now. It does seem to be picking up progress finally. If it succeeds well enough, a lot more future science and engineering will be done by AI than by people. If genuinely conscious, self-aware AI, with proper emotions etc becomes feasible, as I think it will, then we really ought to think about what happens when it goes wrong. (Sci-fi computer games producers already do think that stuff through sometimes – my personal favorite is Mass Effect). We will one day have some insane AIs. In Mass Effect, the concept of AI being shackled is embedded in the culture, thereby attempting to limit the damage it could presumably do. On the other hand, we have had Asimov’s laws of robotics for decades, but they are sometimes being ignored when it comes to making autonomous defense systems. That doesn’t bode well. So, assuming that Mass Effect’s writers don’t get to be in charge of the world, and instead we have ideological descendants of our current leaders, what sort of things could an advanced AI do in terms of its chosen weaponry?

Advanced AI

An ultra-powerful AI is a potential threat in itself. There is no reason to expect that an advanced AI will be malign, but there is also no reason to assume it won’t be. High level AI could have at least the range of personality that we associate with people, with a potentially greater  range of emotions or motivations, so we’d have the super-helpful smart scientist type AIs but also perhaps the evil super-villain and terrorist ones.

An AI doesn’t have to intend harm to be harmful. If it wants to do something and we are in the way, even if it has no malicious intent, we could still become casualties, like ants on a building site.

I have often blogged about achieving conscious computers using techniques such as gel computing and how we could end up in a terminator scenario, favored by sci-fi. This could be deliberate act of innocent research, military development or terrorism.

Terminator scenarios are diverse but often rely on AI taking control of human weapons systems. I won’t major on that here because that threat has already been analysed in-depth by many people.

Conscious botnets could arrive by accident too – a student prank harnessing millions of bots even with an inefficient algorithm might gain enough power to achieve high level of AI. 

Smart bacteria – Bacterial DNA could be modified so that bacteria can make electronics inside their cell, and power it. Linking to other bacteria, massive AI could be achieved.


Adding the ability to enter a human nervous system or disrupt or capture control of a human brain could enable enslavement, giving us zombies. Having been enslaved, zombies could easily be linked across the net. The zombie films we watch tend to miss this feature. Zombies in films and games tend to move in herds, but not generally under control or in a much coordinated way. We should assume that real ones will be full networked, liable to remote control, and able to share sensory systems. They’d be rather smarter and more capable than what we’re generally used to. Shooting them in the head might not work so well as people expect either, as their nervous systems don’t really need a local controller, and could just as easily be controlled by a collective intelligence, though blood loss would eventually cause them to die. To stop a herd of real zombies, you’d basically have to dismember them. More Dead Space than Dawn of the Dead.

Zombie viruses could be made other ways too. It isn’t necessary to use smart bacteria. Genetic modification of viruses, or a suspension of nanoparticles are traditional favorites because they could work. Sadly, we are likely to see zombies result from deliberate human acts, likely this century.

From Zombies, it is a short hop to full evolution of the Borg from Star Trek, along with emergence of characters from computer games to take over the zombified bodies.


Using strong external AI to make collective adaptability so that smart bacteria can colonize many niches, bacterial-based AI or AI using bacteria could engage in terraforming. Attacking many niches that are important to humans or other life would be very destructive. Terraforming a planet you live on is not generally a good idea, but if an organism can inhabit land, sea or air and even space, there is plenty of scope to avoid self destruction. Fighting bacteria engaged on such a pursuit might be hard. Smart bacteria could spread immunity to toxins or biological threats almost instantly through a population.

Correlated traffic

Information waves and other correlated traffic, network resonance attacks are another way of using networks to collapse economies by taking advantage of the physical properties of the links and protocols rather than using more traditional viruses or denial or service attacks. AIs using smart dust or bacteria could launch signals in perfect coordination from any points on any networks simultaneously. This could push any network into resonant overloads that would likely crash them, and certainly act to deprive other traffic of bandwidth.


Conscious botnets could be used to make decryption engines to wreck security and finance systems. Imagine how much more so a worldwide collection of trillions of AI-harnessed organisms or devices. Invisibly small smart dust and networked bacteria could also pick up most signals well before they are encrypted anyway, since they could be resident on keyboards or the components and wires within. They could even pick up electrical signals from a person’s scalp and engage in thought recognition, intercepting passwords well before a person’s fingers even move to type them.

Space guns

Solar wind deflector guns are feasible, ionizing some of the ionosphere to make a reflective surface to deflect some of the incoming solar wind to make an even bigger reflector, then again, thus ending up with an ionospheric lens or reflector that can steer perhaps 1% of the solar wind onto a city. That could generate a high enough energy density to ignite and even melt a large area of city within minutes.

This wouldn’t be as easy as using space based solar farms, and using energy direction from them. Space solar is being seriously considered but it presents an extremely attractive target for capture because of its potential as a directed energy weapon. Their intended use is to use microwave beams directed to rectenna arrays on the ground, but it would take good design to prevent a takeover possibility.

Drone armies

Drones are already becoming common at an alarming rate, and the sizes of drones are increasing in range from large insects to medium sized planes. The next generation is likely to include permanently airborne drones and swarms of insect-sized drones. The swarms offer interesting potential for WMDs. They can be dispersed and come together on command, making them hard to attack most of the time.

Individual insect-sized drones could build up an electrical charge by a wide variety of means, and could collectively attack individuals, electrocuting or disabling them, as well as overload or short-circuit electrical appliances.

Larger drones such as the ones I discussed in would be capable of much greater damage, and collectively, virtually indestructible since each can be broken to pieces by an attack and automatically reassembled without losing capability using self organisation principles. A mixture of large and small drones, possibly also using bacteria and smart dust, could present an extremely formidable coordinated attack.

I also recently blogged about the storm router that would harness hurricanes, tornados or electrical storms and divert their energy onto chosen targets.

In my Space Anchor novel, my superheroes have to fight against a formidable AI army that appears as just a global collection of tiny clouds. They do some of the things I highlighted above and come close to threatening human existence. It’s a fun story but it is based on potential engineering.

Well, I think that’s enough threats to worry about for today. Maybe given the timing of release, you’re expecting me to hint that this is an April Fool blog. Not this time. All these threats are feasible.