DailyDirt: Scotty, We Need More Power…

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There could be a new Star Trek TV show ready in a couple years or so (trying to keep up with the Star Wars franchise, no doubt). But real space travel is also making some progress — with a growing number of private companies trying out new approaches to making more cost effective launch systems. Check out a few of these propulsion concepts that could be powered by “di-lithium” crystals someday.

After you’ve finished checking out those links, take a look at our Daily Deals for cool gadgets and other awesome stuff.

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Companies: boeing, escape dynamics

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Comments on “DailyDirt: Scotty, We Need More Power…”

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Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Owning An Idea

“Boeing filed a patent on this kind of propulsion …” So they never actually got it to work. All you have to do is come up with an idea, describe it in sufficiently plausible-sounding terms, and you can get a patent on it. It doesn’t have to be a good or workable idea, it just has to sound good. And if in the future someone comes up with something that actually works (and is already different from your idea on that basis alone), but you can argue it is close to your original idea, then you can claim licence fees from them.

Ain’t innovation grand?

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Getting Power Where It Is Needed (The Case of Trains).

The traditional problem of electrifying railroads is that the necessary overhead wires or third-rails cost several million dollars a mile, on the same order of cost as the track itself. American railroads have not been able to find this kind of money, as they are largely living on capital investments made circa 1910. Railroad investment largely ceased with the advent of the automobile and the airplane. However, if one recasts the problem of electrically-powered railroads in terms of electronically-switched power, certain possibilities open up. Let take three technologies. The first two have been reduced to practice as systems. The third, while speculative as a whole, does not have any unproven components.

1. The Alstom “smart” third-rail system described in the August 2015 issue of Trains. The Alstom system has been installed on streetcar lines in France, in short lengths through “historic districts” where poles and wires are objectionable, and most recently on the full length of a six-mile streetcar line in Dubai, in the Middle East, This system has a third-rail between the other two rails, and at the same height, but the third-rail has sections of insulator, breaking it up into segments of, say fifty feet, and each segment has an electronic switch, so it only becomes “hot” when commanded. The streetcar carries a shield to protect the activated segment from contact, and commands the third-rail segments to “light up” as appropriate. This system is rather more expensive than other methods of electrification, but can be used under circumstances which might preclude the use of these. In the long run, complex manufactured goods tend to become cheap, because they can be made in a factory, with suitable tools. Construction labor in the field remains persistently expensive, however.


2. There are electric buses in China, which are powered by ultra-capacitors, and the capacitors are recharged by overhead wires which only exist at each bus stop. The capacitors only have to hold enough electricity to drive the bus for a quarter-mile or so, from one bus stop to the next, and a capacitor, unlike a battery, can recharge with extreme rapidity, in seconds. The cables at bus stops only cost a small fraction of what a continuous cable would cost. This system is of course extensible to trains. There is no reason why a railroad car cannot carry, say, a hundred tons of capacitors.


3. The John G. Kneiling Inter-Modal Platform, published in Trains back in the early 1980’s. This system consisted of a long articulated flatcar (I believe Kneiling stipulated a length of a thousand feet). The articulated car was to be fitted with many motors, a continuous on-board power cable, and power cars (locomotives) at either end. This was before double-stack cars became common, but the concept would be readily extended to them. While this system was never reduced to practice per se, it is nothing more than a “slug” locomotive on a grander scale. Trains normally run miles apart, and the cost of the on-board cable is small compared to that of electrifying trackage in the ordinary way. With suitable control electronics, with each truck motor receiving the optimum power/braking setting, the Intermodal Platform would have substantially the performance of a rail-car. Let us add to this, many pantographs or third-rail brushes, and a sufficiency of capacitors. The brushes or pantographs would retract when not in use, rather like a steam locomotive’s water-scoop.

I’m afraid there is no easily accessible source for Kneiling, he predates the internet, and his material is all paywalled.


Taken in combination, electrified track would only need to have, say, a hundred or two hundred feet of Alstom “smart” third-rail, every half-mile or so. A short, light train (eg. a commuter train) would rely on its capacitors between third-rail segments. A long, heavy train would always have a brush on a third-rail segment, and would distribute the power from there, via its own internal cable. In many cases, a segment of “smart” third-rail would have its own capacitor, so that it could store electricity for an hour or more, accumulating it from the kind of electrical service which would be suitable for a discount store, and which is readily available where a county road crosses a railroad track, and then release it at a rate of 10,000 hp for a couple of minutes when a train comes by. It would be feasible to create “mini-helper districts,” say a thousand or two thousand feet long, with a higher proportion of third-rail, and the ability to transfer electricity from a train going down a grade (dynamic braking) to one going up the grade. In particular, commuter railroads often have short steep grades to achieve grade separation, and electric railcars are able to get up and down them without difficulty.

From the track point of view, the major expense would be that of building out electric grid connections to desolate locations on the main line, such as Abo Canyon in New Mexico.

From the rolling stock point of view, it would be necessary to dispense, once and for all, with idea that a railroad car is a sort of mobile warehouse, to be kept cheap and allowed to clog up the railroad. All classes of cars will have to develop systems for expeditiously loading and unloading, comparable to an inter-modal yard, or else these classes of cars will have to be superseded by specialized containers. For example, an articulated tank car would have many tanks, probably no more than twenty tons each, and a loading manifold, similar to the one in a tank-ship. Once connected to a terminal, it would open and close various valves and separately load and unload the contents of various tanks. Once cars achieved high utilization, it would become feasible to fit a comparatively small number of cars with an evolving standard of running gear.

There is a rather funny story about the “warehouse mentality” at its crudest, which I ran across in Edwin A. Pratt’s _The Rise of Rail Power in War and Conquest, 1833-1914_ ( P. S. King & Son, Ltd., London, 1915). It seems that during the Civil War, a Union Army paymaster, seeing an empty boxcar sitting on the main line, decided that it would make an admirable payroll office. So he moved in, and started paying the troops, and forbade anyone to move his “office.” This, of course, had the practical effect of throwing the railroad into gridlock.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Getting Power Where It Is Needed (The Case of Trains).

Most of the time the optimal solution to a problem goes through the use of multiple systems in equilibrium (something we are still struggling with in the economic/societal front for instance). The idea of an hybrid solution of the models you detailed is awesome but I’d add other technologies in the mix. Take hydrogen for instance (or whatever you can fit in chemical cells). You could generate tons of electricity with significantly small amounts of fuel while generating the oh so hazardous water as a byproduct. The model may not be that feasible in cars given the need for smaller sizes or batteries but in a train size isn’t really an issue. There must be other possibilities but I immediately envisioned that one working together with your ideas (I thought about the cargo trains using such fuel systems while energizing the ‘desolate’ regions of the track for passenger trains for instance).

Nice post though, have my insightful vote.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Getting Power Where It Is Needed (The Case of Trains).

You could generate tons of electricity with significantly small amounts of fuel while generating the oh so hazardous water as a byproduct.

Careful there. The same claim, “the only by-product is water” claim gets made about hydrogen-fueled rockets. This ignores that the hydrogen is produced through “steam reforming” from natural gas or other petro-chemicals. Also produced: lots of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

Yes, you can also produce hydrogen through electrolysis of water. But this is by far the most expensive method.

I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re talking about powering a significant number of trains (or cars) with hydrogen, you’ll be generating a lot of CO and CO2 in addition to that water.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Getting Power Where It Is Needed (The Case of Trains).

Well, you understand that, by and by large, railroads run parallel with highways (or rather, the highways were built parallel to the railroads). In unobstructed terrain, that means that they run, say, a fifth of a mile apart for a hundred miles across the great plains, or the desert. The highway, not being under sentence of obsolescence, had an electric transmission wire strung along it, circa 1935, under the New Deal, so that the farms and ranches could have electric power. There are these special cases, where the road goes up a grade of, say, five or ten percent, and that is steeper than a train can manage, so they take different routes for five or ten miles. Rail photographers flock to the difficult ten miles, it’s a bit like watching a John Ford movie, but in the large scheme of things, these sections are not that impossible.

Overhead catenary wire is much more complex in construction, than electric transmission cable. It not only has to carry electricity, but the wire has to be in exactly the right position, and stretched tight enough to be rigid even when the pantograph shoe is skating along the wire. The desired tension is on the order of 30,000 lbs, which means that if the cable snaps in the course of being installed, it will probably smash the installer’s head in. The most difficult part is the last twenty feet or so, repeated many times. Even if a power transmission line had to be built along the railroad tracks to feed segments of third-rail, that would still be much cheaper that building overhead catenary wire.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Getting Power Where It Is Needed (The Case of Trains).

Hydrogen is actually a byproduct of a number of processes. A petrochemical plant (you know, polymers and petrol derivatives other than fuel) will usually burn a load of dirty gas containing a good portion of hydrogen in their flares. A chlorine plant has similar issues. I’m not sure of the magnitude of such byproduct that is burned away but the flares I’ve seen were big enough to make me believe it’s a pretty good quantity that the companies would love to turn into money. You can also use gas from landfills, composting complexes, animal residue (pig poop yields pretty high methane concentrations) and for the remainder of the needs you can use water yes. That’s why we need to focus on other sources of energy, to make it viable for mass usage (I personally think we should invest much more in nuclear power research).

So you do have a point and an important one but it can be done nicely.

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