Category Archives: graphene

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.

 

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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

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!