20 November 2006

Of Airships and Mini-Nuclear Power Plants

A number of new technologies of converged to make a pipe dream of mine, I call it "Eternal, Alaska" possible.

The idea is that it is possible to create a low impact community, I name the village "Eternal, Alaska" that isn't connected to the rest of the world by any road.


One key technology is the airship. Airships are returning to viability after being shelved for the better part of a century in the wake in the Hindenberg disaster, and then being made irrelevant by interstate highways and jet airplanes for transcontinental and transoceanic travel. An airship, a lighter than air vehicle like a blimp. They go about the same speed as a car on a highway, which is exceedingly slow for air travel, but much faster than traveling by sea, or overland by any means off roads. They can also carry as much cargo as a small ship. And, they need infrastructure only at the point of depature and the destination, not in between.

A community hundreds of miles from the nearest road could be supplied periodically by airship, which would be much more affordable than the current means of serving rural Alaska, which is by small general aviation aircraft landing on field airstrips and lakes. This would also have far less environmental impact and infrastructure costs for a new isolated village than building hundreds of miles of roads through virgin forests and mountains to get there.

Airships have some serious downsides in military applications where they have been considered and recently rejected. Most importantly they are big, impossible to hide from an enemy, and impossible to armor. These concerns don't matter in a domestic setting.

A small airship fleet, either privately owned or owned by a cooperative, could support a whole string of villages with regular freight and scenic passenger service.

Small Scale Nuclear Power

A second key technology is the small nuclear power plan, something about to be tried in an Alaskan village. This can provide electricity for decades without any need for constant resupplies of oil, natural gas pipelines, or the like.

If the community is small enough, the vehicles used to tool around the community's small confines (perhaps a couple of square miles) can be electrically powered as well. In military operations almost half of the logistics requirement is fossil fuels. A similar percentage applies to freight traffic. Eliminating the need to move all the fuel makes it much easier for the village to endure if it is cut off from the outside world for a sustained period due to financial hiccups, weather, or labor actions.

This also means that the community will produce little or no air pollution. Nuclear waste from the reactor could be shipped out in a single trip when it came time to refuel the reactor. There would have to be a small supply of jet fuel for general aviation service (ideally via float plane, so no airstrip would have to be built), and a small supply for fuel for ATVs for trips into the surrounding wilderness when necessary, and perhaps some off the shelf contruction vehicles, but the supplies could be very small relative to the size of the communites.

Advanced Manufactured Housing

A third key technology is the advancing state of manufactured housing. It is now possible to build homes sturdier and more quickly than stick built homes, with 40 pieces instead of 40,000, and far less on site waste, by building large subassemblies, like large sections of wall pre-plumbed and wired, in factories. Early manufactured housing (still widely used in parts of Alaska) is shoddy and hard to transport by air because the pieces are so big and hard to move. But, moving full construction crews, rough lumber, and hardware stores full of parts to a roadless wilderness to build a village during the very short construction season is a deal breaking problem.

Also, some technologies, like new nail designs that make a house more resistant to wind and earthquake damage, but which are harder to remove if a mistake is made on site, are perfect for houses where components are largely preassembled in carefully controlled factory conditions.

These buildings could be built with features like triple pane windows argon filled windows, and extra insulation that make sense in the frigid North, but have been unpopular because energy is cheaper in the continental U.S., the winters aren't so cold, and they are harder to install. Extreme insulation would be desirable because heating would be electrical, in order to avoid the need to ship in heating oil or run a natural gas pipeline to the community.

Advanced Wireless Telecommunications

Satellites make it possible to get phone service, varied television offerings and varied radio offerings, at a modest cost, anywhere in the world, without building your wired connection to the outside world. The community could have a communal WiFi network and a collection of cell phone towers big enough to cover the entire community, and in the process would avoid the need to have telephone wiring or TV cables in the community. Physical mail service would be much less important with these kind of connections.

The community could be set up with electronic fund transfer infrastructure based on a village identity card, similar to the system used on many college campuses, to eliminate the need to ship significant quantities of cash to and from the community.

This would also be an ideal place to set up a hospital equipped with telemedicine facilities so patients could consult with specialists in Anchorage, or even the continental United States.

The goal would be to provide the comforts of a more conventional community while minimizing the amount of infrastructure that has to be built locally.

What's left?

Some infrastructure would be needed. If the community was placed next to a pristine lake, a fairly bare bones water treatment and sewerage treatment system (with underground plumbing connnecting all buildings) would be possible. These systems could be designed to minimize maintenance requirements. Buried electrical lines would provide a low maintenance way to provide power and heat to all community buildings, even during intense Alaskan storms.

Some roads would be necessary within the community itself, tailored to the electric vehicles chosen for the community, and a handful of off the shelf conventional vehicles. EVs are perfect for clean, short range, stop and go transportation. Enclosed passageways connecting at least some groups of buildings for easy access in incliment weather, like those at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, or Mayo Clinic in Rochester, might also make sense.

It would need a local school district at the Pre-K thorugh 12 level, and possibly beyond, and a library to compliment it.

The community would need a hospital and/or clinic, and probably would need its own HMO to finance them. It would need a place for float planes/ski planes to land and resupply and a landing area of airships. It would need warehouses for food and other supplies.

It would need a local court to handle community disputes and unruliness, and a small local jail. But, there would probably be very little of the stuff of lifeblood of most local courts like traffic fines and automobile accident cases, because the community would be walkable and have little vehicle traffic.

Ideally, it would have a complex of greenhouses so that the community could provide some fresh vegetables locally, and an insulated barn full of cows to provide fresh milk. It would need a small landfill. But, a composting facility in connection with the greenhouses, and a small recycling facility, could minimize the landfill needs of the community.

It would probably make more sense to import clothing than to try to produce it locally on a small scale. The same concept would apply to many goods that might be cheaper to produce elsewhere and bring in, than to produce locally.

And, it would need some sort of industry. A college campus could be one piece of the puzzle, and there could be other low impact revenue streams to support it. It might be a good place for a language institute for the U.S. military, because trainees could be isolated and forced to immerse themselves in the new language. It might, for example, be designed to minimize light pollution and serve as a home to a first rate astronomical observatory. It could also serve as a resort and retreat.

Less idealistically, these concepts could eventually be used for low impact exploitation of ANWAR for oil in which the only impact outside the drilling area would be a pipeline designed to to impair wildlife migration. Eliminating roads from a design could make the idea more pallatable to environmentalists concerned about protecting ANWAR habitat.


Craig Talbert said...

There's is, actually, some very interesting prospects for fusion energy.

You should have a look at this lecture at Google.

Craig Talbert said...

Whoops, linked it wrong.