Category Archives: graphene

Pythagoras Sling update

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing mission, I updated my Pythagoras Sling a bit. It now uses floating parachutes so no rockets or balloons are needed at all and the whole thing is now extremely simple.

Introducing the Pythagoras Sling –

A novel means of achieving space flight

Dr I D Pearson & Prof Nick Colosimo

 

Executive Summary

A novel reusable means of accelerating a projectile to sub-orbital or orbital flight is proposed which we have called The Pythagoras Sling. It was invented by Dr Pearson and developed with the valuable assistance of Professor Colosimo. The principle is to use large parachutes as effective temporary anchors for hoops, through which tethers may be pulled that are attached to a projectile. This system is not feasible for useful sizes of projectiles with current materials, but will quickly become feasible with higher range of roles as materials specifications improve with graphene and carbon composite development. Eventually it will be capable of launching satellites into low Earth orbit, and greatly reduce rocket size and fuel needed for human space missions.

Specifications for acceleration rates, parachute size and initial parachute altitudes ensure that launch timescales can be short enough that parachute movement is acceptable, while specifications of the materials proposed ensure that the system is lightweight enough to be deployed effectively in the size and configuration required.

Major advantages include (eventually) greatly reduced need for rocket fuel for orbital flight of human cargo or potential total avoidance of fuel for orbital flight of payloads that can tolerate higher g-forces; consequently reduced stratospheric emissions of water vapour that otherwise present an AGW issue; simplicity resulting in greatly reduced costs for launch; and avoidance of risks to expensive payloads until active parts of the system are in place. Other risks such as fuel explosions are removed completely.

The journey comprises two parts: the first part towards the first parachute conveys high vertical speed while the second part converts most of this to horizontal speed while continuing acceleration. The projectile therefore acquires very high horizontal speed required for sub-orbital and potentially for orbital missions.

The technique is intended mainly for the mid-term and long-term future, since it only comes into its own once it becomes possible to economically make graphene components such as strings, strong rings and tapes, but short term use is feasible with lower but still useful specifications based on interim materials. While long term launch of people-carrying rockets is feasible, shorter term uses would be limited to smaller payloads or those capable of withstanding higher g-forces. That makes it immediately useful for some satellite or military launches, with others quickly becoming feasible as materials improve.

Either of two mechanisms may be used for drawing the cable – a drum based reel or a novel electromagnetic cable drive system. The drum variant may be speed limited by the strength of drum materials, given very high centrifugal forces. The electromagnetic variant uses conventional propulsion techniques, essentially a linear motor, but in a novel arrangement so is partly unproven.

There are also alternative methods available for parachute deployment and management. One is to make the parachutes from lighter-than-air materials, such as graphene foam, which is capable of making solid forms less dense than helium. The chutes would float up and be pulled into their launch positions. A second option is to use helium balloons to carry them up, again pulling them into launch positions. A third is to use a small rocket or even two to deploy them. Far future variants will probably opt for lighter-than-air parachutes, since they can float up by themselves, carry additional tethers and equipment, and can remain at high altitude to allow easy reuse, floating back up after launch.

There are many potential uses and variants of the system, all using the same principle of temporary high-atmosphere anchors, aerodynamically restricted to useful positions during launch. Not all are discussed here. Although any hypersonic launch system has potential military uses, civil uses to reduce or eliminate fuel requirements for space launch for human or non-human payloads are by far the most exciting potential as the Sling will greatly reduce the currently prohibitive costs of getting people and material into orbit. Without knowing future prices for graphene, it is impossible to precisely estimate costs, but engineering intuition alone suggests that such a simple and re-usable system with such little material requirement ought to be feasible at two or three orders of magnitude less than current prices, and if so, could greatly accelerate mid-century space industry development.

Formal articles in technical journals may follow in due course that discuss some aspects of the sling and catapult systems, but this article serves as a simple publication and disclosure of the overall system concepts into the public domain. Largely reliant on futuristic materials, the systems cannot reasonably be commercialised within patent timeframes, so hopefully the ideas that are freely given here can be developed further by others for the benefit of all.

This is not intended to be a rigorous analysis or technical specification, but hopefully conveys enough information to stimulate other engineers and companies to start their own developments based on some of the ideas disclosed.

Introductory Background

A large number of non-fuel space launch systems have been proposed, from Jules Verne’s 1865 Moon gun through to modern railguns, space hooks and space elevators. Rail guns convey moderately high speeds in the atmosphere where drag and heating are significant limitations, but their main limitation is requiring very high accelerations but still achieving too low muzzle velocity for even sub-orbital trips. Space-based tether systems such as space hooks or space elevators may one day be feasible, but not soon. Current space launches all require rockets, which are still fairly dangerous, and are highly expensive. They also dump large quantities of water vapour into the high atmosphere where, being fairly persistent, it contributes significantly to the greenhouse effect, especially as it drifts towards the poles. Moving towards using less or no fuel would be a useful step in many regards.

The Pythagoras Sling

In summary, having considered many potential space launch mechanisms based on high altitude platforms or parachutes, by far the best system is the Pythagoras Sling. This uses two high-altitude parachutes attached to rings, offering enough drag to act effectively as temporary slow-moving anchors while a tether is pulled through them quickly to accelerate a projectile upwards and then into a curve towards final high horizontal speed.

 

We called this approach the Pythagoras Sling due to its simplicity and triangular geometry. It comprises some ground equipment, two large parachutes and a length of string. The parachutes would ideally be made using lighter-than-air materials such as graphene foam, a foam of tiny graphene spheres containing vacuum, that is less dense than helium. They could therefore float up to the required altitude, and could be manoeuvred into place immediately prior to launch. During the launch process they would move so it would take a few hours to float back to their launch positions. They could remain at high altitude for long periods, perhaps permanently. In that case, as well as carrying the tether for the launch, additional tethers would be needed to anchor and manoeuvre the parachutes and to feed launch tether through in preparation for a new launch. It is easy to design the system so that these additional maintenance tethers are kept well out of the way of the launch path.

The parachutes could be as large as desired if such lightweight materials are used, but if alternative mechanisms such as rockets or balloons are used to carry them into place, they would probably be around 50m diameter, similar to the Mars landing ones.

Each parachute would carry a ring through which the launch tether is threaded, and the rings would need to be very strong, low friction, heat-resistant and good at dispersing heat. Graphene seems an ideal choice but better materials may emerge in coming years.

The first parachute would float up to a point 60-80km above the launch site and would act as the ‘sky anchor’ for the first phase of launch where the payload gathers vertical speed. The 2nd parachute would be floated up and then dragged (using the maintenance tether) as far away and as high as feasible, but typically to the same height and 150km away horizontally, to act as the fulcrum for the arc part of the flight where the speed is both increased and converted to horizontal speed needed for orbit.

Simulation will be required to determine optimal specifications for both human and non-human payloads.

Another version exists where the second parachute is deployed from a base with winding equipment 150km distant from the initial rocket launch. Although requiring two bases, this variant holds merit. However, using a single ground base for both chute deployments offers many advantages at the cost of using slightly longer and heavier tether. It also avoids the issue that before launch, the tether would be on the ground or sea surface over a long distance unless additional system details are added to support it prior to launch such as smaller balloons. For a permanent launch site, where the parachutes remain at high altitude along with the tethers, this is no longer an issue so the choice may be made on a variety of other factors. The launch principle remains exactly the same.

Launch Process

On launch, with the parachutes, rings and tethers all in place, the tether is pulled by either a jet engine powered drum or an electromagnetic drive, and the projectile accelerates upwards. When it approaches the first parachute, the tether is disengaged from that ring, to avoid collision and to allow the second parachute to act as a fulcrum. The projectile is then forced to follow an arc, while the tether is still pulled, so that acceleration continues during this period. When it reaches the final release position, the tether is disengaged, and the projectile is then travelling at orbital or suborbital velocity, at around 200km altitude. The following diagram summarises the process.

Two-base variant

This variant with two bases and using rocket deployment of the parachutes still qualifies as a Pythagoras Sling because they are essentially the same idea with just minor configurational differences. Each layout has different merits and simulation will undoubtedly show significant differences for different kinds of missions that will make the choice obvious.

Calculations based on graphene materials and their theoretical specifications suggest that this could be quite feasible as a means to achieve sub-orbital launches for humans and up to orbital launches for smaller satellites that can cope with 15g acceleration. Other payloads would still need rockets to achieve orbit, but greatly reduced in size and cost.

Exchanges of calculations between the authors, based on the best materials available today suggest that this idea already holds merit for use for microsatellites, even if it falls well below graphene system capabilities. However, graphene technology is developing quickly, and other novel materials are also being created with impressive physical qualities, so it might not be many years before the Sling is capable of launching a wide range of payload sizes and weights.

In closing

The Pythagoras Sling arose after several engineering explorations of high-altitude platform launch systems. As is often the case in engineering, the best solution is also by far the simplest. It is the first space launch system that treats parachutes effectively as temporary aerial anchors, and it uses just a string pulled through two rings held by those temporary anchors, attached to the payload. That string could be pulled by a turbine or an electromagnetic linear motor drive, so could be entirely electric. The system would be extremely safe, with no risk of fuel explosions, and extremely cheap compared to current systems. It would also avoid dumping large quantities of greenhouse gases into the high atmosphere. The system cannot be built yet, and its full potential won’t be realised until graphene or similarly high specification strings or tapes are economically available. However, it should be well noted that other accepted future systems such as the Space Elevator will also need such materials, but in vastly larger quantity. The Pythagoras Sling will certainly be achievable many years before a space elevator and once it is, could well become the safest and cheapest way to put a wide range of payloads into orbit.

Cable-based space launch system

A rail gun is a simple electromagnetic motor that very rapidly accelerates a metal slug by using it as part of an electrical circuit. A strong magnetic field arises as the current passes through the slug, propelling it forwards.

EM launch system

An ‘inverse rail gun’ uses the same principle, but rather than a short slug, the force acts on a small section of a long cable, which continues to pass through the system. As that section passes through, another takes its place, passing on the force and acceleration to the remainder of the cable. That also means that each small section only has a short and tolerable time of extreme heating resulting from high current.

This can be used either to accelerate a cable, optionally with a payload on the end, or via Newtonian reaction, to drag a motor along a cable, the motor acting as a sled, accelerating all along the cable. If the cable is very long, high speeds could result in the vacuum of space. Since the motor is little more than a pair of conductive plates, it can easily be built into a simple spacecraft.

A suitable spacecraft could thus use a long length of this cable to accelerate to high speed for a long distance trip. Graphene being an excellent conductor as well as super-strong, it should be able to carry the high electric currents needed in the motor, and solar panels/capacitors along the way could provide it.

With such a simple structure, made from advanced materials, and with only linear electromagnetic forces involved, extreme speeds could be achieved.

A system could be made for trips to Mars for example. 10,000 tons of sufficiently strong graphene cable to accelerate a 2 ton craft at 5g could stretch 6.7M km through space, and at 5g acceleration (just about tolerable for trained astronauts), would get them to 800km/s at launch, in 4.6 hours. That’s fast enough to get to Mars in 5-12 days, depending where it is, plus a day each end to accelerate and decelerate, 7-14 days total.

10,000 tons is a lot of graphene by today’s standards, but we routinely use 10,000 tons of steel in shipbuilding, and future technology may well be capable of producing bulk carbon materials at acceptable cost (and there would be a healthy budget for a reusable Mars launch system). It’s less than a space elevator.

6.7M km is a huge distance, but space is pretty empty, and even with gravitation forces distorting the cable, the launch phase can be designed to straighten it. A shorter length of cable on the opposite side of an anchor (attached to a Moon tower, or a large mass at a Lagrange point) would be used to accelerate the spacecraft towards the launch end of the cable, at relatively low speed, say 100km/s, a 20 hour journey, and the deceleration phase of that trip applies significant force to the cable, helping to straighten and tension it for the launch immediately following. The craft would then accelerate along the cable, travel to Mars at high speed, and there would need to be an intercept system there to slow it. That could be a mirror of the launch system, or use alternative intercept equipment such as a folded graphene catcher (another blog).

Power requirements would peak at the very last moments, at a very high 80GW. Then again, this is not something we could build next year, so it should be considered in the context of a mature and still fast-developing space industry, and 800km/s is pretty fast, 0.27% of light speed, and that would make it perfect for asteroid defense systems too, so it has other ways to help cost in. Slower systems would have lower power requirements or longer cable could be used.

Some tricky maths is involved at every stage of the logistics, but no more than any other complex space trip. Overall, this would be a system that would be very long but relatively low in mass and well within scales of other human engineering.

So, I think it would be hard, but not too hard, and a system that could get people to Mars in literally a week or two would presumably be much favored over one that takes several months, albeit it comes with some serious physical stress at each end. So of course it needs work and I’ve only hinted superficially at solutions to some of the issues, but I think it offers potential.

On the down-side, the spaceship would have kinetic energy of 640TJ, comparable to a small nuke, and that was mainly limited by the 5g acceleration astronauts can cope with. Scaling up acceleration to 1000s of gs military levels could make weapons comparable to our largest nukes.

Spiders in Space

A while back I read an interesting article about how small spiders get into the air to disperse, even when there is no wind:

Spiders go ballooning on electric fields: https://phys.org/news/2018-07-spiders-ballooning-electric-fields.html

If you don’t want to read it, the key point is that they use the electric fields in the air to provide enough force to drag them into the air. It gave me an idea. Why not use that same technique to get into space?

There is electric air potential right up to the very top of the atmosphere, but electric fields permeate space too. It only provides a weak force, enough to lift a 25mg spider using the electrostatic force on a few threads from its spinnerets.

25mg isn’t very heavy, but then the threads are only designed to lift the spider. Longer threads could generate higher forces, and lots of longer threads working together could generate significant forces. I’m not thinking of using this to launch space ships though. All I want for this purpose is to lift a few grams and that sounds feasible.

If we can arrange for a synthetic ‘cyber-spider’ to eject long graphene threads in the right directions, and to wind them back in when appropriate, our cyber-spider could harness these electric forces to crawl slowly into space, and then maintain altitude. It won’t need to stay in exactly the same place, but could simply use the changing fields and forces to stay within a reasonably small region. It won’t have used any fuel or rockets to get there or stay there, but now it is in space, even if it isn’t very high, it could be quite useful, even though it is only a few grams in weight.

Suppose our invisibly small cyber-spider sits near the orbit of a particular piece of space junk. The space junk moves fast, and may well be much larger than our spider in terms of mass, but if a few threads of graphene silk were to be in its path, our spider could effectively ensnare it, cause an immediate drop of speed due to Newtonian sharing of momentum (the spider has to be accelerated to the same speed as the junk, from stationary so even though it is much lighter, that would still cause a significant drop in junk speed)) and then use its threads as a mechanism for electromagnetic drag, causing it to slowly lose more speed and fall out of orbit. That might compete well as a cheap mechanism for cleaning up space junk.

Some organic spiders can kill a man with a single bite, and space spiders could do much the same, albeit via a somewhat different process. Instead of junk, our spider could meander into collision course with an astronaut doing a space walk. A few grams isn’t much, but a stationary cyber-spider placed in the way of a rapidly moving human would have much the same effect as a very high speed rifle shot.

The astronaut could easily be a satellite. Its location could be picked to impact on a particular part of the satellite to do most damage, or to cause many fragments, and if enough fragments are created – well, we’ve all watched Gravity and know what high speed fragments of destroyed satellites can do.

The spider doesn’t even need to get itself into a precise position. If it has many threads going off in various directions, it can quickly withdraw some of them to create a Newtonian reaction to move its center of mass fast into a path. It might sit many meters away from the desired impact position, waiting until the last second to jump in front of the astronaut/satellite/space junk.

What concerns me with this is that the weapon potential lends itself to low budget garden shed outfits such as lone terrorists. It wouldn’t need rockets, or massively expensive equipment. It doesn’t need rapid deployment, since being invisible, could migrate to its required location over days, weeks or months. A large number of them could be invisibly deployed from a back garden ready for use at any time, waiting for the command before simultaneously wiping out hundreds of satellites. It only needs a very small amount of IT attached to some sort of filament spinneret. A few years ago I worked out how to spin graphene filaments at 100m/s:

Spiderman-style silk thrower

If I can do it, others can too, and there are probably many ways to do this other than mine.

If you aren’t SpiderMan, and can accept lower specs, you could make a basic graphene silk thrower and associated IT that fits in the few grams weight budget.

There are many ways to cause havoc in space. Spiders have been sci-fi horror material for decades. Soon space spiders could be quite real.

 

 

Advanced land, sea, air and space transport technologies

I’ll be speaking at the Advanced Engineering conference in Helsinki at the end of May. My topic will be potential solutions for future transport, covering land, sea, air and space. These are all areas where I’ve invented new approaches. In my 1987 BT life as a performance engineer, I studied the potential to increase road capacity by a factor of 5 by using driverless pod technology, mimicking the packet switching approach we were moving towards in telecomms. This is very different from the self-driving systems currently in fashion, because dumb pods would be routed by smart infrastructure rather than having their own AI/sensor systems, so the pods could be extremely cheap and packed very closely together to get a huge performance benefit, using up to 85% of the available space. We’re now seeing a few prototypes of such dumb pod systems being trialled.

It was also obvious even in the 1980s that the same approach could be used on rail, increasing capacity from today’s typical 0.4% occupancy to 80%+, an improvement factor of 200, and that the same pods could be used on rail and road, and that on rail, pods could be clumped together to make virtual trains so that they could mix with existing conventional trains during a long transition period to a more efficient system. In the early 2000s, we realised that pods could be powered by induction coils in the road surface and more recently, with the discovery of graphene, such graphene induction devices could be very advantageous over copper or aluminium ones due to deterrence of metal theft, and also that linear induction could be used to actually propel the pods and in due course even to levitate them, so that future pods wouldn’t even need engines or wheels, let alone AI and sensor systems on board.

We thus end up with the prospect of a far-future ground transport system that is 5-15 times road capacity and up to 200 times rail capacity and virtually free of accidents and congestion.

Advanced under-sea transport could adopt supercavitation technology that is already in use and likely to develop quickly in coming decades. Some sources suggest that it may even be possible to travel underwater more easily then through air. Again, if graphene is available in large quantity at reasonable cost, it would be possible to do away with the need for powerful engines on board, this time by tethering pods together with graphene string.

Above certain speeds, a blunt surface in front of each pod would create a bubble enclosing the entire pod, greatly reducing drag. Unlike Hyperloop style high-speed rail, tubes would not be required for these pods, but together, a continuous stream of many pods tethered together right across an ocean would make a high-capacity under-sea transport system. This would be also be more environmentally friendly, using only electricity at the ends.

Another property of graphene is that it can be used to make carbon foam that is lighter than helium. Such material could float high in the stratosphere well above air lanes. With the upper surface used for solar power collection, and the bottom surface used as a linear induction mat, it will be possible to make inter-continental air lines that can propel sleds hypersonically, connected by tethers to planes far below.

High altitude solar array to power IT and propel planes

As well as providing pollution-free hypersonic travel, these air lines could also double as low satellite platforms for comms and surveillance.

As well as land, sea and air travel, we are now seeing rapid development of the space industry, but currently, getting into orbit uses very expensive rockets that dump huge quantities of water vapour into the high atmosphere. A 2017 invention called the Pythagoras Sling solves the problems of expense and pollution. Two parachutes are deployed (by small rockets or balloons) into the very high atmosphere, attached to hoops through which a graphene tether is threaded, one end connected to a ground-based winch and the other to the payload. The large parachutes have high enough drag to act as temporary anchors while the tether is pulled, propelling the payload up to orbital speed via an arc that renders the final speed horizontal as obviously needed to achieve orbit.

With re-usable parts, relatively rapid redeployment and only electricity as power supply, the sling could reduce costs by a factor of 50-100 over current state of the art, greatly accelerating space development without the high altitude water vapour risking climate change effects.

The winch design for the Pythagoras Sling uses an ‘inverse rail gun’ electromagnetic puller to avoid massive centrifugal forces of a rotating drum. The inverse rail gun can be scaled up indefinitely, so also offers good potential for interplanetary travel. With Mars travel on the horizon, prospects of months journey times are not appealing, but a system using well-spaced motors pulling a graphene tether millions of km long is viable. A 40,000 ton graphene tether could be laid out in space in a line 6.7M km long, and using solar power, could propel a 2 Ton capsule at 5g up to an exit speed of 800km/s, reaching Mars in as little 5-12 days.

At the far end, a folded graphene net could intercept and slow the capsule at 5g  into a chosen orbit around Mars. While not prohibitively expensive, this system would be completely reusable and since it needs no fuel, would be a very clean and safe way of getting crew and materials to a Mars colony.

 

High speed transatlantic submarine train

In 1863, Jules Verne wrote about the idea of suspended transatlantic tunnels through which trains could be sent using air pressure. Pneumatic tube delivery was a fashionable idea then, and small scale pneumatic delivery systems were commonplace until the late 20th century – I remember a few shops using them to transport change around. In 1935, the film ‘The tunnel’ featured another high speed transatlantic tunnel, as did another film in 1972, ‘Tunnel through the deeps’. Futurists have often discussed high speed mass transit systems, often featuring maglev and vacuums (no, Elon Musk didn’t invent the idea, his Hyperloop is justifiably famous for resurfacing and developing this very old idea and is likely to see its final implementation).

Anyway, I have read quite a bit about supercavitation over the last years. First developed in 1960 as a military idea to send torpedoes at high speed, it was successfully implemented in 1972 and has since developed somewhat. Cavitation happens when a surface, such as a propeller blade, moves through water so fast that a cavity is left until the water has a chance to close back in. As it does, the resultant shock wave can damage the propeller surface and cause wear. In supercavitation, the cavity is deliberate, and the system designed so that the cavity encloses the entire projectile. In 2005, the first proposal for people transport emerged, DARPA’s Underwater Express Program, designed to transport small groups of Navy personnel at speeds of up to 100 knots. Around that time, a German supercavitating torpedo was reaching 250mph speeds.

More promising articles suggest that supersonic speeds are achievable under water, with less friction than going via air. Achieving the initial high speed and maintaining currently requires sophisticated propulsion mechanisms, but not for much longer. I believe the propulsion problem can be engineered away by pulling capsules with a strong tether. That would be utterly useless for a torpedo of course, but for a transport system would be absolutely fine.

Transatlantic traffic is quite high, and if a cheaper and more environmentally friendly system than air travel were available, it would undoubtedly increase. My idea is to use a long string of capsules attached to a long graphene cable, pulled in a continuous loop at very high speed. Capsules would be filled at stations, accelerated to speed and attached to the cable for their transaltlantic journey, then detached, decelerated and their passengers or freight unloaded. Graphene cable would be 200 times stronger than steel so making such a cable is feasible.

The big benefit of such a system is that no evacuated tube is needed. The cable and capsules would travel through the water directly. Avoiding the need for an expensive and complex  tube containing a vacuum, electromagnetic propulsion system and power supply would greatly reduce cost. All of the pulling force for a cable based system would be applied at the ends.

Graphene cable doesn’t yet exist, but it will one day. I doubt if current supercavitation research is up to the job either, but that’s quite normal for any novel engineering project. Engineers face new problems and solve them every day. By the time the cable is feasible, we will doubtless be more knowledgeable about supercavitation too. So while it’s a bit early to say it will definitely become reality, it is certainly not too early to start thinking about it. Some future Musk might well be able to pull it off.

Mars trips won’t have to take months

It is exciting seeing the resurgence in interest in space travel, especially the prospect that Mars trips are looking increasingly feasible. Every year, far-future projects come a year closer. Mars has been on the agenda for decades, but now the tech needed is coming over the horizon.

You’ve probably already read about Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans, so I won’t bother repeating them here. The first trips will be dangerous but the passengers on the first successful trip will get to go down in history as the first human Mars visitors. That prospect of lasting fame and a place in history plus the actual experience and excitement of doing the trip will add up to more than enough reward to tempt lots of people to join the queue to be considered. A lucky and elite few will eventually land there. Some might stay as the first colonists. It won’t be long after that before the first babies are born on Mars, and their names will certainly be remembered, the first true Martians.

I am optimistic that the costs and travel times involved in getting to Mars can be reduced enormously. Today’s space travel relies on rockets, but my own invention, the Pythagoras Sling, could reduce the costs of getting materials and people to orbit by a factor of 50 or 100 compared the SpaceX rockets, which already are far cheaper than NASA’s. A system introduction paper can be downloaded from:

https://carbondevices.files.wordpress.com/2017/09/pythagoras-sling-article.pdf

Sling

Sadly, in spite of obviously being far more feasible and shorter term than a space elevator, we have not yet been able to get our paper published in a space journal so that is the only source so far.

This picture shows one implementation for non-human payloads, but tape length and scale could be increased to allow low-g human launches some day, or more likely, early systems would allow space-based anchors to be built with different launch architecture for human payloads.

The Sling needs graphene tape, a couple of parachutes or a floating drag platform and a magnetic drive to pull the tape, using standard linear motor principles as used in linear induction motors and rail guns. The tape is simply attached to the rocket and pulled through two high altitude anchors attached to the platforms or parachutes. Here is a pic of the tape drive designed for another use, but the principle is the same. Rail gun technology works well today, and could easily be adapted into this inverse form to drive a suitably engineered tape at incredible speed.

All the components are reusable, but shouldn’t cost much compared to heavy rockets anyway. The required parachutes exist today, but we don’t have graphene tape or the motor to pull it yet. As space industry continues to develop, these will come. The Space Elevator will need millions of tons of graphene, the Sling only needs around 100 kilograms so will certainly be possible decades before a space elevator. The sling configuration can achieve full orbital speeds for payloads using only electrical energy at the ground, so is also much less environmentally damaging than rocketry.

Using tech such as the Sling, material can be put into orbit to make space stations and development factories for all sorts of space activity. One project that I would put high on the priority list would be another tape-pulling launch system, early architecture suggestion here:.

Since it will be in space, laying tape out in a long line would be no real problem, even millions of kms, and with motors arranged periodically along the length, a long tape pointed in the right direction could launch a payload towards a Mars interception system at extreme speeds. We need to think big, since the distances traveled will be big. A launch system weighing 40,000 tons would be large scale engineering but not exceptional, and although graphene today is very expensive as with any novel material, it will become much cheaper as manufacturing technology catches up (if the graphene filament print heads I suggest work as I hope, graphene filament could be made at 200m/s and woven into yarn by a spinneret as it emerges from multiple heads). In the following pics, carbon atoms are fed through nanotubes with the right timing, speed and charges to combine into graphene as they emerge. The second pic shows why the nanotubes need to be tilted towards each other since otherwise the molecular geometry doesn’t work, and this requirement limits the heads to make thin filaments with just two or three carbon rings wide. The second pic mentions carbon foam, which would be perfect to make stratospheric floating platforms as an alternative to using parachutes in the Sling system.

Graphene filament head, ejects graphene filament at 200m/s.

A large ship is of that magnitude, as are some building or bridges. Such a launch system would allow people to get to Mars in 5-12 days, and payloads of g-force tolerant supplies such as water could be sent to arrive in a day. The intercept system at the Mars end would need to be of similar size to catch and decelerate the payload into Mars orbit. The systems at both ends can be designed to be used for launch or intercept as needed.

I’ve been a systems engineer for 36 years and a futurologist for 27 of those. The system solutions I propose should work if there is no better solution available, but since we’re talking about the far future, it is far more likely that better systems will be invented by smarter engineers or AIs by the time we’re ready to use them. Rocketry will probably get us through to the 2040s but after that, I believe these solutions can be made real and Mars trips after that could become quite routine. I present these solutions as proof that the problems can be solved, by showing that potential solutions already exist. As a futurologist, all I really care about is that someone will be able to do it somehow.

 

So, there really is no need to think in terms of months of travel each way, we should think of rapid supply chains and human travel times around a week or two – not so different from the first US immigrants from Europe.

2018 outlook: fragile

Futurists often consider wild cards – events that could happen, and would undoubtedly have high impacts if they do, but have either low certainty or low predictability of timing.  2018 comes with a larger basket of wildcards than we have seen for a long time. As well as wildcards, we are also seeing the intersection of several ongoing trends that are simultaneous reaching peaks, resulting in socio-political 100-year-waves. If I had to summarise 2018 in a single word, I’d pick ‘fragile’, ‘volatile’ and ‘combustible’ as my shortlist.

Some of these are very much in all our minds, such as possible nuclear war with North Korea, imminent collapse of bitcoin, another banking collapse, a building threat of cyberwar, cyberterrorism or bioterrorism, rogue AI or emergence issues, high instability in the Middle East, rising inter-generational conflict, resurgence of communism and decline of capitalism among the young, increasing conflicts within LGBTQ and feminist communities, collapse of the EU under combined pressures from many angles: economic stresses, unpredictable Brexit outcomes, increasing racial tensions resulting from immigration, severe polarization of left and right with the rise of extreme parties at both ends. All of these trends have strong tribal characteristics, and social media is the perfect platform for tribalism to grow and flourish.

Adding fuel to the building but still unlit bonfire are increasing tensions between the West and Russia, China and the Middle East. Background natural wildcards of major epidemics, asteroid strikes, solar storms, megavolcanoes, megatsumanis and ‘the big one’ earthquakes are still there waiting in the wings.

If all this wasn’t enough, society has never been less able to deal with problems. Our ‘snowflake’ generation can barely cope with a pea under the mattress without falling apart or throwing tantrums, so how we will cope as a society if anything serious happens such as a war or natural catastrophe is anyone’s guess. 1984-style social interaction doesn’t help.

If that still isn’t enough, we’re apparently running a little short on Ghandis, Mandelas, Lincolns and Churchills right now too. Juncker, Trump, Merkel and May are at the far end of the same scale on ability to inspire and bring everyone together.

Depressing stuff, but there are plenty of good things coming too. Augmented reality, more and better AI, voice interaction, space development, cryptocurrency development, better IoT, fantastic new materials, self-driving cars and ultra-high speed transport, robotics progress, physical and mental health breakthroughs, environmental stewardship improvements, and climate change moving to the back burner thanks to coming solar minimum.

If we are very lucky, none of the bad things will happen this year and will wait a while longer, but many of the good things will come along on time or early. If.

Yep, fragile it is.

 

Artificial muscles using folded graphene

Slide1

Folded Graphene Concept

Two years ago I wrote a blog on future hosiery where I very briefly mentioned the idea of using folded graphene as synthetic muscles:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/11/16/the-future-of-nylon-ladder-free-hosiery/

Although I’ve since mentioned it to dozens of journalists, none have picked up on it, so now that soft robotics and artificial muscles are in the news, I guess it’s about time I wrote it up myself, before someone else claims the idea. I don’t want to see an MIT article about how they have just invented it.

The above pic gives the general idea. Graphene comes in insulating or conductive forms, so it will be possible to make sheets covered with tiny conducting graphene electromagnet coils that can be switched individually to either polarity and generate strong magnetic forces that pull or push as required. That makes it ideal for a synthetic muscle, given the potential scale. With 1.5nm-thick layers that could be anything from sub-micron up to metres wide, this will allow thin fibres and yarns to make muscles or shape change fabrics all the way up to springs or cherry-picker style platforms, using many such structures. Current can be switched on and off or reversed very rapidly, to make continuous forces or vibrations, with frequency response depending on application – engineering can use whatever scales are needed. Natural muscles are limited to 250Hz, but graphene synthetic muscles should be able to go to MHz.

Uses vary from high-rise rescue, through construction and maintenance, to space launch. Since the forces are entirely electromagnetic, they could be switched very rapidly to respond to any buckling, offering high stabilisation.

Slide2

The extreme difference in dimensions between folded and opened state mean that an extremely thin force mat made up of many of these cherry-picker structures could be made to fill almost any space and apply force to it. One application that springs to mind is rescues, such as after earthquakes have caused buildings to collapse. A sheet could quickly apply pressure to prize apart pieces of rubble regardless of size and orientation. It could alternatively be used for systems for rescuing people from tall buildings, fracking or many other applications.

Slide3

It would be possible to make large membranes for a wide variety of purposes that can change shape and thickness at any point, very rapidly.

Slide4

One such use is a ‘jellyfish’, complete with stinging cells that could travel around in even very thin atmospheres all by itself. Upper surfaces could harvest solar power to power compression waves that create thrust. This offers use for space exploration on other planets, but also has uses on Earth of course, from surveillance and power generation, through missile defense systems or self-positioning parachutes that may be used for my other invention, the Pythagoras Sling. That allows a totally rocket-free space launch capability with rapid re-use.

Slide5

Much thinner membranes are also possible, as shown here, especially suited for rapid deployment missile defense systems:

Slide6

Also particularly suited to space exploration o other planets or moons, is the worm, often cited for such purposes. This could easily be constructed using folded graphene, and again for rescue or military use, could come with assorted tools or lethal weapons built in.

Slide7

A larger scale cherry-picker style build could make ejector seats, elevation platforms or winches, either pushing or pulling a payload – each has its merits for particular types of application.  Expansion or contraction could be extremely rapid.

Slide8

An extreme form for space launch is the zip-winch, below. With many layers just 1.5nm thick, expanding to 20cm for each such layer, a 1000km winch cable could accelerate a payload rapidly as it compresses to just 7.5mm thick!

Slide9

Very many more configurations and uses are feasible of course, this blog just gives a few ideas. I’ll finish with a highlight I didn’t have time to draw up yet: small particles could be made housing a short length of folded graphene. Since individual magnets can be addressed and controlled, that enables magnetic powders with particles that can change both their shape and the magnetism of individual coils. Precision magnetic fields is one application, shape changing magnets another. The most exciting though is that this allows a whole new engineering field, mixing hydraulics with precision magnetics and shape changing. The powder can even create its own chambers, pistons, pumps and so on. Electromagnetic thrusters for ships are already out there, and those same thrust mechanisms could be used to manipulate powder particles too, but this allows for completely dry hydraulics, with particles that can individually behave actively or  passively.

Fun!