Monthly Archives: November 2015

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 nylon: ladder-free hosiery

Last week I outlined the design for a 3D printer that can print and project graphene filaments at 100m/s. That was designed to be worn on the wrist like Spiderman’s, but an industrial version could print faster. When I checked a few of the figures, I discovered that the spinnerets for making nylon stockings run at around the same speed. That means that graphene stockings could be made at around the same speed. My print head produced 140 denier graphene yarn but it made that from many finer filaments so basically any yarn thickness from a dozen carbon atoms right up to 140 denier would be feasible.

The huge difference is that a 140 denier graphene thread is strong enough to support a man at 2g acceleration. 10 denier stockings are made from yarn that breaks quite easily, but unless I’ve gone badly wrong on the back of my envelope, 10 denier graphene would have roughly 10kg (22lb)breaking strain. That’s 150 times stronger than nylon yarn of the same thickness.

If so, then that would mean that a graphene stocking would have incredible strength. A pair of 10 denier graphene stockings or tights (pantyhose) might last for years without laddering. That might not be good news for the nylon stocking industry, but I feel confident they would adapt easily to such potential.

Alternatively, much finer yarns could be made that would still have reasonable ladder resistance, so that would also affect the visual appearance and texture. They could be made so fine that the fibers are invisible even up close. People might not always want that, but the key message is that wear-resistant, ladder free hosiery could be made that has any gauge from 0.1 denier to 140 denier.

There is also a bonus that graphene is a superb conductor. That means that graphene fibers could be woven into nylon hosiery to add circuits. Those circuits might be to harvest radio energy, act as an aerial, power LEDS in the hosiery or change its colors or patterns. So even if it isn’t used for the whole garment, it might still have important uses in the garment as an addition to the weave.

There is yet another bonus. Graphene circuits could allow electrical supply to shape changing polymers that act rather like muscles, contracting when a voltage is applied across them, so that a future pair of tights could shape a leg far better, with tensions and pressures electronically adjusted over the leg to create the perfect shape. Graphene can make electronic muscles directly too, but in a more complex mechanism (e.g. using magnetic field generation and interaction, or capacitors and electrical attraction/repulsion).

Spiderman-style silk thrower

I quite like Spiderman movies, and having the ability to fire a web at a distant object or villain has its appeal. Since he fires web from his forearm, it must be lightweight to withstand the recoil, and to fire enough to hold his weight while he swings, it would need to have extremely strong fibers. It is therefore pretty obvious that the material of choice when we build such a thing will be graphene, which is even stronger than spider silk (though I suppose a chemical ejection device making spider silk might work too). A thin graphene thread is sufficient to hold him as he swings so it could fit inside a manageable capsule.

So how to eject it?

One way I suggested for making graphene threads is to 3D print the graphene, using print nozzles made of carbon nanotubes and using a very high-speed modulation to spread the atoms at precise spacing so they emerge in the right physical patterns and attach appropriate positive or negative charge to each atom as they emerge from the nozzles so that they are thrown together to make them bond into graphene. This illustration tries to show the idea looking at the nozzles end on, but shows only a part of the array:printing graphene filamentsIt doesn’t show properly that the nozzles are at angles to each other and the atoms are ejected in precise phased patterns, but they need to be, since the atoms are too far apart to form graphene otherwise so they need to eject at the right speed in the right directions with the right charges at the right times and if all that is done correctly then a graphene filament would result. The nozzle arrangements, geometry and carbon atom sizes dictate that only narrow filaments of graphene can be produced by each nozzle, but as the threads from many nozzles are intertwined as they emerge from the spinneret, so a graphene thread would be produced made from many filaments. Nevertheless, it is possible to arrange carbon nanotubes in such a way and at the right angle, so provided we can get the high-speed modulation and spacing right, it ought to be feasible. Not easy, but possible. Then again, Spiderman isn’t real yet either.

The ejection device would therefore be a specially fabricated 3D print head maybe a square centimeter in area, backed by a capsule containing finely powdered graphite that could be vaporized to make the carbon atom stream through the nozzles. Some nice lasers might be good there, and some cool looking electronic add-ons to do the phasing and charging. You could make this into one heck of a cool gun.

How thick a thread do we need?

Assuming a 70kg (154lb) man and 2g acceleration during the swing, we need at least 150kg breaking strain to have a small safety margin, bearing in mind that if it breaks, you can fire a new thread. Steel can achieve that with 1.5mm thick wire, but graphene’s tensile strength is 300 times better than steel so 0.06mm is thick enough. 60 microns, or to put it another way, roughly 140 denier, although that is a very quick guess. That means roughly the same sort of graphene thread thickness is needed to support our Spiderman as the nylon used to make your backpack. It also means you could eject well over 10km of thread from a 200g capsule, plenty. Happy to revise my numbers if you have better ones. Google can be a pain!

How fast could the thread be ejected?

Let’s face it. If it can only manage 5cm/s, it is as much use as a chocolate flamethrower. Each bond in graphene is 1.4 angstroms long, so a graphene hexagon is about 0.2nm wide. We would want our graphene filament to eject at around 100m/s, about the speed of a crossbow bolt. 100m/s = 5 x 10^11 carbon atoms ejected per second from each nozzle, in staggered phasing. So, half a terahertz. Easy! That’s well within everyday electronics domains. Phew! If we can do better, we can shoot even faster.

We could therefore soon have a graphene filament ejection device that behaves much like Spiderman’s silk throwers. It needs some better engineers than me to build it, but there are plenty of them around.

Having such a device would be fun for sports, allowing climbers to climb vertical rock faces and overhangs quickly, or to make daring leaps and hope the device works to save them from certain death. It would also have military and police uses. It might even have uses in road accident prevention, yanking pedestrians away from danger or tethering cars instantly to slow them extra quickly. In fact, all the emergency services would have uses for such devices and it could reduce accidents and deaths. I feel confident that Spiderman would think of many more exciting uses too.

Producing graphene silk at 100m/s might also be pretty useful in just about every other manufacturing industry. With ultra-fine yarns with high strength produced at those speeds, it could revolutionize the fashion industry too.

Using carbon to make a Landspeeder or hoverboard

You are probably familiar with Marty McFly’s hovering skateboard and the Star Wars Landspeeder hover-car. How feasible are they? Like most futurists, I get asked about flying cars every week.

Let’s dispose of pedantry first. Flying cars do exist. Some are basically vertical take off planes without the wings, using directed air jets to stay afloat and move. I guess you could use a derivative of that to make a kind of land-speeder. The hovercraft is also a bit Landspeedery, but works differently. Hovercraft are OK, but a Landspeeder floats higher off the ground and without the skirt so it it’s no hovercraft. Well, we’ll see.

Carbon can be used to make a Star Wars Landspeeder or Marty McFly’s hover board from Back to the Future. Both would be almost silent, with no need for messy skirts, fans, or noisy ducted air jet engines, and could looks like the ones in the films. Or you could employ a designer and make one that looks nice instead.


Anti-gravity may one day be possible but we don’t know how to do that yet. Conventional wisdom says that either you use noisy ducted air jets or a hovercraft skirt, or else magnetic levitation, as the Landspeeder is meant to be anyway, which can be done but so far needs a special metal track. It couldn’t work on a pavement or side-walk. You can’t use simple magnetic repulsion effects to levitate above concrete or asphalt.

I pointed out a good while ago with my linear induction bicycle lane idea that you could use a McFly style hover-board on it. My daughter’s friends were teasing me about futurists and hoverboards – that’s why.

That would work. It would be totally silent. However, the Landspeeder didn’t stay on a linear induction mat laid just under the entire desert surface, did it? That would just be silly. If you had a linear induction mat laid under the entire desert surface, you’d put some sort of horse shoes on your camel and it could just glide everywhere at high speed. You wouldn’t need the Landspeeder.

Ignoring conventional wisdom, with some redesign, you can use magnetic levitation to produce a landspeeder or hoverboard that would work on a sidewalk, pavement, road, or even a desert surface. Not water, not the way McFly did anyway. You could also make the hover tanks and everything else that silently hovers near the ground in sci-fi films. And force fields. Sand, asphalt and concrete aren’t made of metal but that doesn’t matter.

Graphene is a really good conductor. Expensive still, but give it a few years and it’ll be everywhere. It is a superb material. With graphene, you can make thin tubes, bigger than carbon nanotubes but still small bore. You could use those to make coils around electron pipes, maybe even the pipes themselves. Electron pipes are particle guides along which you can send any kind of charged particles at high speed, keeping them confined using strong magnetic fields, produced by the coils around the pipe, a mini particle accelerator. I originally invented electron pipes as a high bandwidth (at least 10^22bit/s) upgrade for optical fibre, but they have other uses too such as on-chip interconnect, 3d biomimetic microprinting for things like graphene tubes, space elevator rope and others. In this case, they have two uses.

First you’d use a covering of the pipes on the vehicle underside to inject a strong charge flux into the air beneath the hoverboard (if you’re a sci-fi nut, you could store the energy to do this in a super-capacitor and if you’re really twisted you might even call it a flux capacitor, since it will be used in the system to make this electron flux). The result is a highly charged mass of air. Plasma. So what?

Well, you’d also use some rings of these tubes around the periphery of the vehicle to create a very strong wall of magnetic field beneath the vehicle edge. This would keep the charged air from just diffusing. In addition, you’d direct some of them downwards to create a flow of charged air that would act to repel the air inside, further keeping it confined to a higher depth, or altitude, so you could hover quite a distance off the ground.

As a quick but important aside, you should be able to use it for making layered force fields too, (using layers of separated and repelling layers of charged air. They should resist small forces trying to bend them and would certainly disrupt any currents trying to get through. But maybe they would not be mechanically strong ones. So, not strong enough to stop bullets, but enough to stop or severely disrupt charges from basic plasma weaponry, but there aren’t many of them yet so that isn’t much of a benefit. Anyway… back to the future.

Having done this, you’ll hopefully have a cushion of highly charged air under your vehicle, confined within its circumference, and some basic vents could make up for any small losses. I am guessing this air is probably highly conductive, so it could be used to generate both magnetic and electrostatic forces with the fields produced by all those coils and pipes in the vehicle.

So now, you’d basically have a high-tech, silent electromagnetic hovercraft without a skirt to hold the air in, floating above pretty much any reasonably solid surface, that doesn’t even have to be smooth. It wouldn’t even make very much draft so you wouldn’t be sitting in a dust cloud.

Propulsion would be by using a layer of electron pipes around the edge of the vehicle to thrust particles in any direction, so providing an impulse, reaction and hence movement. The forward-facing and side facing pipes would suck in air to strip the charge off with which to feed the charged air underneath. Remember that little air would be escaping so this would still be silent. Think of the surface as a flat sheet that pushes ionised air through quite fast using purely electromagnetic force.

Plan B would be to use the cover of electron pipes on the underside to create a strong downward air flow that would be smoothed and diffused by pipes doing the side cushion bit. Neither would be visible and spoil the appearance, and smooth flow could still be pretty quiet. I prefer plan A. It’s just neater.

There would be a little noise from the air turbulence created as the air flow for propulsion mixes with other air, but with a totally silent source of the air flow. So basically you’d hear some wind but not much else.

Production of the electron pipes is nicely biomimetic. Packing them closely together in the right pattern (basically the pattern they’d assume naturally if you just picked them up) and feeding carbon atoms with the right charge through them at the right intervals could let you 3D print a continuous sheet of graphene or carbon nanotube. Biomimetic since the tube would grow from the base continuously just like grass. You could even produce an extremely tall skyscraper that way. 30km is a reasonable limit for 2045, but recent figures for graphene strength suggest that structures up to 600km may be theoretically possible by the end of the century.

Could it work. Yes, I think so. I haven’t built a prototype but intuitively it should be feasible. Back to the Future Part 1 takes Marty to Oct 21, 2015. We just passed that and two prototypes hoverboards were available then. Sadly, neither used my technique but a good lab could just about make most and maybe all of this capability any time soon. On the other hand, Star Wars is set very far away and very long ago, so we’re a bit late for that one.

So, feasible, and just a little way in the future. Pretty much the entire vehicle could be carbon based. Carbon fibre and carbon foam would provide most of the structure, graphene windows for streamlining, strength, protection and transparency, graphene and carbon nanotubes for engines, power and levitation.

Carbon Devices site update

I have just updated all the posts on this blog and removed most of the references to my scifi novel so it is now just the ideas without their original context (some were designed specifically as solutions to story plots). It will still be about carbon materials, inventions, uses and abuses.

My book Space Anchor is still available, but I don’t have any current plans to write a sequel. It is about Carbon Girl, her partner Carbon Man and their mostly independent adventures. It’s good fun. Buy it!