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Shipping Goes Down The Tubes

A system for moving goods through a high-speed pipeline is not so far-fetched, say some researchers.

By Linda Rosencrance
March 26, 2001 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Imagine a national network of pipes, some as small as one foot in diameter and half a mile long, for transporting mail or machine parts between two buildings, and others as large as six feet in diameter and hundreds of miles long for intercity and interstate freight shipment. Sound far-fetched?

Not to Professor Henry Liu, director of the Capsule Pipeline Research Center (CPRC) at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Liu has spent more than 20 years researching pipeline technology systems in which close-fitting capsules carry freight through underground tubes between terminals.

As traffic congestion and pollution increase and fossil fuel supplies dry up, scientists are looking to innovative modes of transportation to transport freight more cost effectively and efficiently.

"This new pipeline technology can transport freight such as coal; solid waste, including hazardous waste; [and] agricultural products, as well as mail and parcels," Liu says.

Two Propulsion Systems

Liu is investigating two capsule propulsion systems to move freight: pneumatic systems propelled by air pressure, which use air from booster fans or pumps to move the wheeled capsules through underground tubes, and a slower hydraulic system.

Hydraulic systems would push freight at 6 to 10 feet per second, while pneumatic systems would run at much higher speeds - 20 to 50 feet per second, Liu says.

Freight pipelines would employ a communication system that uses microwaves, cables and satellites operated automatically by a computer at the pipeline company's headquarters, he says.

William Vandersteel, an inventor in Alpine, N.J., is working to improve the technology used in the pneumatic pipeline system. In Vandersteel's tube pipeline, called TubeExpress, goods are carried in free-wheeling vehicles (capsules) that are pumped through the pipelines by electrical power. The CPRC is studying the use of an electromagnetic propulsion system called a linear induction motor, like those used in roller coasters and high-speed trains, to move freight through the pipeline, according to Liu.

Using this system, an electromagnetic charge in induction coils set at intervals within the pipeline would propel the capsules forward. Moving the capsules directly instead of by pumping air would allow the system to operate without interruption or distance limitation.

Daryl Oster in Crystal River Fla., has invented the Evacuated Tube Transport, which he claims could move goods from Miami to New York in 25 minutes and from New York to Hong Kong in three or four hours. Oster says his patented system, which works by eliminating friction, could be built aboveground as well as underground.

And while Oster's system - with its promise of speeds that surpass 2,000 miles per hour - may strain

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