An Old Idea for Freight Deliveries Brought Up To Date By Modern Technology

Anyone familiar with Shanghai’s Maglev Train will also be familiar with the hype that surrounds it as the future of rail transport. In truth, it is unlikely to ever be any such thing.

Shanghai’s Maglev, or Magnetic Levitation Train, is unquestionably a clever piece of technology and full marks to the Chinese for what is an effective tourist attraction, even if it does leave you irritatingly short of your destination as you attempt to travel from the airport to the city and find yourself deposited in the suburbs. Nevertheless, the point here is not to praise or bleat about the Maglev, merely to introduce the technology as an even more novel form of transportation outlined in a recent Economist article.

The Science and Technology section of the Economist frequently makes for a fascinating read and this article on the modern day application of the turn of the century pneumatic tube delivery system is just such a wacky review. Many of you may be too young to remember those fascinating tubes that department stores had when I was a small child: tellers would place orders for the stock room or remove cash from tills and after enclosing it in a capsule, consign it through a small door into a tube that ran to the dispatch department, stores, accounts — who knows where — and within seconds, high-pressure air dispatched said capsule to its desired destination within the building.

Apparently this system was used in more than just buildings. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, underground tubes were used in many cities to speed up the transport of mail between post offices and government buildings. Letters were put into capsules, the capsules into the tubes, and compressed air was then used to push the capsules from one station to the next. Applied today, such a system could (theoretically) deliver your Amazon order in hours rather than the current days. The technology didn’t last because of the cost and unreliability of operating high-pressure air pumps, but a firm in Italy has come up with a modern-day equivalent that may just possibly provide the instantaneous gratification of a prompt Amazon delivery.

Like a comedian’s stooge you now pipe up (no pun intended) — but what does this have to do with the Maglev? Well, a Dr. Contana in Italy has a firm called Pipenet that has developed a system that propels much larger capsules by electromagnetic levitation, that is, by a series of current-induced electromagnetic coils, in a similar way to the levitation and propulsion of the Maglev train. The only use of air pumps is to create a partial vacuum to reduce air resistance in the tubes. Unlike the train though, Pipenet’s capsules travel down the 2-ft-diameter pipes for a fraction of the cost of carrying people capital costs are estimated at below €2.5 million per kilometre ($5 million per mile). That is a fifth to a tenth of the cost of building a high-speed railway, and at 1,500 kph about five times faster.

Whether it proves economical remains to be seen, but the firm is undertaking a feasibility study for a pipeline network in Perugia, a medieval city in Italy whose narrow, steep streets make existing means of goods delivery particularly inefficient. This study suggests the system would repay the cost of building it within seven years. Researchers at Tongji University in China are also working with the firm’s founder to look at applying the system there. Is this another technology that we may see developed in the west and applied en masse in the east? Maybe not, but it is an intriguing idea.

–Stuart Burns

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