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Forty Five Minutes To Where? August 28, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in clean energy, climate, transportation, Uncategorized.
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It’s summertime. And Philly Bluejay is living it easy. And also has sporadic internet connection other than his iPhone. It’s hard to bang out multi-line email responses on an iPhone, much less 1,200 word blog posts! If only Philly Bluejay was a teenager during the dawn of texting, he would have developed the thumb dexterity necessary to conduct all of his online business on a 2.5″ by 4.5″ touch screen. Alas, club-thumbs relegate Philly Bluejay to the laptop set.

Anywhos, here is a SmartPlanet—not to be confused with SmarterPlanet®—blog post about vactrains. What is a vactrain? It’s a maglev (magnetic levitation) train that travels in an airless—or at least highly depressurized—tube. Because there is no friction with either the rails or the air, vactrains can presumably achieve very high speeds while using relatively little energy. China is currently developing a vactrain that will travel at 600+ mph. That is more than twice as fast as the fastest maglev train—the 268 mph Shanghai line, more than three times faster than the fastest conventional train, and even slightly faster than a jet! Second- and third- generation vactrains could break the sound barrier and reach speeds of 4,000 mph! NY to LA in 45 minutes!

Okay, so a train going 4,000 mph along a relatively straightshot 3,000 mile tube is probably not going to happen—not even with eminent domain—but even a train going 600 mph along a 300 mile tube would be a useful thing. Here is a CNN.com piece about high-speed rail projects in the US. The most interesting parts of the piece are the actual projects as well as the criticisms. The most prevalent criticism is that high speed train travel is less energy efficient than traveling in a small car and that it is not sufficiently faster to forfeit door-to-door convenience. This is a false argument. The competition for high speed trains is not cars—it’s regional jets. Regional jets are the least energy-efficient form of transportation. Jet travel in general is hard to make green because batteries cannot achieve anywhere near the energy density of kerosene-based jet fuel. But regional jets are worse than long-haul jets because they have larger vehicle-to-payload weight ratios and because they fly at lower altitudes where air resistance is higher. When Philly Bluejay and eighteen other people take the 6AM Embraer 170 to Boston—this happens!

Regional jets are ripe to get picked off by high speed trains. Train travel is as convenient as regional jet travel if not more so. There are no long security lines at train stations—although security at train stations should be increased. And most inter-city train stations are located in downtowns—at the hub of the local train system—whereas most airports are not. Philly Bluejay would much prefer to take the 6AM maglev-Acella or vac-Acella—actually, vac-Acella sounds too much like a disease—to Boston and get to the train station at 5:45 than the 6AM United-Express and get to the airport at 5:15.

Which gets us back to the US high-speed rail projects. Most of the projects—northeast corridor, California coast, Miami-Orlando—are sensible. There is a lot of regional jet travel along these routes. But some are pure pork. Is there significant regional air traffic between Cincinnati and Cleveland? Between Milwaukee and St. Paul? High speed track—especially maglev- and vac-tracks—is expensive. From a climate-change/renewable-energy perspective, it only makes sense if it can displace a significant amount of air travel.

P.S. Speaking of the 2.5″ by 4.5″ magic portal, Philly Bluejay recently discovered the rationale behind these magical dimensions! I’m sure you’ve heard of the classic Microsoft interview question: “why are manhole covers round?” The real answer of course is “Duh, because manholes are round and the cover needs to fit the hole!” but the answer Microsoft expects is “So that it can’t fall in.” Well, the reason the second smallest dimension of an iPhone is 2.5″ is so that it doesn’t fall through a sidewalk grating when someone bumps into you while you are trying to take a picture.

P.P.S. If you travel in computer science circles—and who among Philly Bluejay’s four readers doesn’t? except for my mother, hi mom—you know about the recent buzz surrounding the central question of the field—whether P=NP. About two weeks ago, Vinay Deolalikar—a mathematician working at HP—published a 100+ page proof of the widely believed but still not formally proven result that P≠NP. Why would anyone do such a thing? Well, there are 1,000,000 reasons—or maybe 1,166,666.66 now that Grigory Perelman refuses to collect after resolving the Poincare conjecture. After much prodding and pulling on the WordPress-sphere, it now appears that all has been for naught and that Mr. Deolalikar will not be collecting after all. Well, Philly Bluejay has recently proven a somewhat less known but no less important result—sources tell me that it was ranked 1,530 on the list of millenium challenge problems—specifically that YP≠MP. Follow closely. You≠me∴your problem≠my problem. QED. Now, where is my 1,166,666.66 USD?

P.P.P.S. Anyone know the HTML code for the QED “tombstone?”

P.P.P.P.S. A few weeks ago, Baghdad recorded an all time record high temperature of 126 Fahrenheit—it’s a dry heat. Then just this past week, the last US combat troop pulled out of Iraq. Coincidence? Perhaps the US/West strategy against Iraq/Afghanistan/Iran should revolve not around military action but rather around climate change! Humans can’t tolerate prolonged exposure to temperatures higher than 120 Fahrenheit. If we can raise the average summer high temperature in the region to that level—it’s currently about 108 Fahrenheit—I bet the locals would get a lot less feisty. Come on, we can do this!

P.P.P.P.P.S. Philly Bluejay also has a plan for long-haul trans- and inter-continental jet travel. With the shuttle program now retired, NASA needs to develop hybrid jets that fly both in the atmosphere using conventional forced-air jet propulsion and above it using stored oxygen. These hybrid jets would take off from commercial airfields, climb through the atmosphere like conventional jets, transition to shuttle mode, travel the bulk of their route in zero-drag conditions while discharging waste gas outside of the atmosphere, then reenter, transition back to conventional jet mode, then land again at a commercial field.

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