Crazy or Brilliant? Proposal to Transport Food Around Britain in Underground Tubes

By Alasdair Wilkins - io9 | December 8, 2010 9:14 pm

In the future, all our food will be carried in underground tubes

It’s straight out of 1950s science fiction: an entire country connected by food-transporting pipelines, sending baked beans and smoked kippers sailing between London and Liverpool at 60 miles per hour. And it’s arguably more sensible than what we’re already doing.

In the United Kingdom, 8 percent of all carbon dioxide mixed into the atmosphere comes from the diesel gas used to move around food trucks. That’s a ton of unnecessary pollution, particularly when you consider one estimate suggests only a small percentage of that gas is actually needed to move the food if things were run efficiently. That’s where Foodtubes enters the picture.

The brainchild of a British team of academics, engineers, and project planners, Foodtubes calls for the creation of high-speed food pipelines throughout the UK. Each major city and center food production would be linked with a pipeline, and the cities would also have their own internal pipelines to get the food to various different neighborhoods.

The food would sail along in small capsules at upwards of 60 miles per hour. As many as 900,000 capsules could be in circulation in the nearly 2,000 miles of pressurized pipe, all of which would be controlled by smart grids that would keep food from crashing into each other. To give some semblance of order, the capsules would generally be organized into little trains of about 300 linked capsules, each spaced about a meter apart.

Now, this idea might seem a little nutty—I’ll admit it seems rather fanciful. But the people behind Foodtubes point out the UK transports 180 times more water than food everyday, and all of that is done using pipelines with minimal pollution and no traffic jams.

Up to 200,000 food-carrying trucks could be taken off British roads, which would save 40 million tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. Not bad for twenty tons worth of pipes and capsules. If the entire world adopted the Foodtubes approach, they estimate a massive four billion tons worth of yearly carbon dioxide emissions would be stopped. The world currently emits about 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, so that’s a pretty significant savings.

The Foodtubes people admit their ideas will face opposition from supporters of the current system, but they’re confident that the savings will be too good for people to ignore:

“The freight industry is deeply entrenched at every level of government and commerce. They claim rights to profit from dominating our roads, shaking our buildings and polluting our air. Many traditional politicians and food bosses are oil-junkies, dedicated to keeping things as they are—whatever the social costs. [However] the business operation is likely to be highly profitable and the transport savings to supermarkets and others will be immediate and significant.”

One thing I’m not sure they’ve considered is what to do with all those suddenly unemployed truck drivers—I’m guessing there aren’t 200,000 available jobs for pipeline technicians—but that seems more like a detail to figure out than something that invalidates the whole idea. For more, check out their two-minute slide show:


This post originally appeared on io9.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Engineering, Transportation

Comments (15)

  1. Jessica

    Let’s hope they’re better at designing tubes than videos. Yikes. I do like the idea, though! It reminds me of Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy.

  2. Interesting idea that reminds me of those vacuum-tube postal systems used in some of the big department stores of my extreme youth.

    Video could be zingier though, and slightly odd that so many images are not of UK scenes or trucks.

  3. Bigby

    Every new technology puts someone out of business. It sucks for a while but then society readjusts and things go on. Those truck drivers wouldn’t become suddenly unemployed because – even if it happens – and they may find it economically not feasible – it’s pretty unlikely to happen as a flash-cut. Sections of network will go up a little at a time over the course of years and the impact to the trucking industry will be gradual.

  4. Bryce

    Why limit this to just food?

  5. Georg

    Holy Crap!
    Such an extremely expensive system just for food?
    One has to be an imbecil to propose this.

  6. (pressure)(volume) = energy, 101.325 J/liter-atm
    No energy is “saved.”

    How will the tunnels be excavated? Are the pipes free? What happens when stateless Muslim terrorists dispatch a fleet of two-component expanding polyurethane foam bombs, er, improvised plugging devices, down the line?

    Some yob caught the opening sequence to Futurama and thought, “Needs studies!”

    If solar-powered linear induction motors were used, and on-the-fly x-ray inspection stations were added, with pat-downs and feel-ups for every employee every hour, and a managerial chain of command were installed, and it was all unionized, and the Spare Heir volunteered for employment, and…

  7. Todd

    To people who think this is ridiculous to propose cuz it’s just food. Well, food is a kind of important thing wouldn’t you agree? And though this would be very expensive to build it would probably be better and more efficient in the long run. Money would be saved because they wouldn’t have to pay drivers to drive the food everywhere anymore, and the horrible traffic in London and Manchester would be severely cut into.

  8. Matt B.

    I’m glad to see it’s more like the pneumatic tubes of the early 20th Century than the toothpaste faucet a comedian came up with. My first thought was “Herring transported by tube is going to go bad before it can get there.”

    But how do Food Tubes compare to light rail? Since light rail is mostly radial to urban areas anyway, it might be a good ready-made system for carrying cargo into a city.

    @ 7. Todd: The roads wouldn’t have to be repaired as often either.

  9. Miles

    Love the idea, but if the food is going to be contained in capsules, why limit it to just food? Shouldn’t it work for textiles and other manufactures?

  10. mike

    During WW2 There was a proposal to put British troops ashore (in Burma I think) by a similar method. Apparently the Japanese woulod be so surprised by the sudden popping out of soldiers from the sea that victory would be easy

  11. Josh

    It would be very silly to build a system like that just for food, it should instead be for general light freight. And if it moves freight around so well, why not people too – a la Futurama?

    They also have to weigh the costs of building and maintaining the thing, which I suspect would be prohibitive. It’s silly to compare it to systems that deliver gas or water – unless they envision everyone living on a diet of soylent sludge.

    Last, I don’t think many people will go for buying eggs, vegetables or meat products without seeing them first. Many grocery stores will deliver, but few people take advantage of it even though it would save them time.

  12. RockyRoad

    As a mining engineer, I can tell you that drilling/excavating tunnels/tubes is very expensive, as is the cost of maintenance. Alternatively, digging trenches from the surface in which to bury the tubes is a possibility, but that encroaches on significant private property or runs into other impediments such as buildings, roads, railroads, rivers, etc.

    The energy to move the materials sent through the tubes has to come from somewhere–natural gas and other petroleum product pipelines have pumps that move that material. The vast majority of the energy required to do this comes from carbon dixoide-emitting power sources somewhere (hydro, wind, and solar are nearly negligent in their contribution); the only other energy source is nuclear, which is in decline.

  13. Erwin

    Don’t we have such a system in place (agreed only used for larger volumes now) and isn’t called railways? An extension to a more fine mazed grid is easily and much cheaper done.


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