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Hot-air powered railway to harvest energy from cars

'Solve problems by building stuff,' says architect

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An American architect has come up with a scheme, now picked up on Slashdot, to harvest the wind generated by fast-moving motor vehicles and use it to power a light-rail network running alongside the highway.

The idea is that sections of dividing barriers would be replaced by rows of Darius turbines, which would whirl in the wakes of the cars and trucks speeding along on either side and generate loads of electricity. Mark Oberholzer, a greenly-positioned Houston architect, had originally proposed no more than this, back in 2006. This year, however, he has refined his ideas.

"Opposing streams of traffic create really incredible potential in terms of a guaranteed wind source," he told Metropolis magazine in January.

"The technical problems of tying into the grid and managing the flow made me think of putting the power to a different use. I'm pretty excited about integrating a subway or light-rail train right where the barrier is. I love the idea of siphoning off electricity generated by private transportation to run public transportation."

Of course, there could be a problem here. Drivers, noticing the new light-rail line, might start leaving their cars at home and so rob the new infrastructure of power. Indeed, it's possible to speculate that realistically an electric rail system is going to have to tie into the power grid anyway, so in fact there isn't any serious rationale for situating it next to a road.

But Oberholzer doesn't agree.

"The peaks of traffic flow more or less coincide with those of energy use," he told Metropolis, leading the architecture mag to speculate that "rush-hour chaos on the highways could actually help power the commute for public-transport users."

Err...unless it actually was rush-hour chaos, with traffic at a crawl or a standstill. That would bring the road-powered railway to a grinding halt, too. As would an insufficent number of cars. In fact, Oberholzer's scheme only seems at all viable in the happy state where there are lots of vehicles, but still few enough that they can go really fast.

Unsurprisingly, though, wind-turbine manufacturers such as General Electric reckon it's winner.

"I think if the [USA] continues...it will become one of the leading countries in wind," GE's Robert Gleitz told Metropolis. He might just be right, if this plan is anything to go by.

This isn't, after all, a wind powered railway - it's a petrol and diesel powered one, and there's no way in the world that you could call it an efficient way of getting power out of hydrocarbon. Why not use treadmill rollers embedded in the road, while we're at it? In fact, why not just designate one lane of the highway as a bus lane? That would save tons of motor fuel, as it would prevent a lot of car journeys. Then you could use some of the juice to run buses. Buses can carry a lot more people along a highway lane than cars can, and don't use nearly as much fuel per passenger mile.

Bingo! You're carrying more people than you were to begin with, burning less fuel than you were too and you don't need miles and miles of incredibly expensive new infrastructure to do it.

It wouldn't be popular with motorists, so perhaps it's not an ideal solution. But at least you'd save a lot of money on architects. ®

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