Idea #20: Atom Sized Tube

The idea is this:

To build, atom by atom, a tube of diameter of a chosen atom. 

From the famous experiments with scanning tunnelling microscope, you can see that scientists have a limited ability to place atoms as they please on a flat surface. This is accomplished by a combination of ingenuous materials like piezodrives, lots of time and pacience, and very controlled circunstances (high ultra vaccum, and so on).

Aside from writing and drawing stuff, that isn’t much more than a display of tech marvel. We have yet to build complex, useful nanostructures like a nanoassembler, for example.

I’ll be streching this STM idea, and making some guesses along the way – since I don’t have first hand experience with such a microscope.  There is only so much I can check because most papers are blocked behind a pay firewall.

So we can place atoms where we please over a substrate, cool. What if go arranging them side by side, leaving just a space in the middle, of precisely the size of the atom. This is the  layer A.

As an example, let’s pick gold atoms on a copper substrate:


On another layer B, atoms are just placed side by side, filling the entire surface. These two layers are then sandwiched, facing each other, and you apply pressure to keep them together.


Note that this would be time consuming, since it took forever just to write the NIST logo. Advances in autonomous atom assemblers (AAA) are useful here.

The size ‘L’ of this should be as large as it’s possible to make it, so that it’s easier to manipulate. I suspect that as you try to make it bigger you will enconter more  and more defects on your flat surface. ‘d’ ends up being just a little bit smaller than the atomic diameter.

To know what ‘D’ to use requires a study in particular, we will get back to it later.

The substrate is a a very carefully grown monocrystal with the least defects possible, to avoid gas difusion.

By doing that, luckily, you will end up with a very expensive artificial atomic tube. Choose a different type of atom and subtrate, you have changed the diameter of the tube. It really didn’t became clear to me if placing atoms in multiple layers is possible, but that should increase the possible diameters you could make – up to molecules size.

I can think of two possible applications for this:

First, the idea is that atoms that fit this size will find this tube and tunnnel through it. So you’d have the means of placing atoms in a precise location, by changing the position of this tube with a piezodrive. You’ve have taken atoms into the gas state in a chamber above, this filter in between, and just below it the surface you are building. This is based on the idea of atomic layer deposition.

With two, independent, blocks like this on top of each other, you would have the means of closing and opening the tube at will. Maybe this will bring us closer to building things in the nano-scale.

  • Will atoms pass on this tube, and how would they behave in there?
  • What is the thickness ‘D’ of this tube that provides this desired effect, of passing only certain atoms?
  • Does more or less atoms pass if you increase D?
  • Do they also leak somewhere else?

These are all question that could be answered by an experiment (or possibly by someone more educated than myself in these matters).

The second application is atomic separation. Assume you stack several of this units side by side forming a sieve. The ultimate sieve, by the way. If you place smaller and smaller ones in sequence, you can sort out the individual atoms of a gas or liquid.

It would be very nice to get 99.999999% pure samples from this, or to separate gold ions suspended in a solution, for example.


[IMAGE: STM constant current image of Ag, at 160K image credits]



Idea #19: Making it Rain

To become masters of this unpredictable thing that is weather is something that only sci-fi has been able to create.

Imagine a world where there wouldn’t be no more extended droughts, floods, blizzards, El Niño or hurricanes. Climate would be mild all year across (still allowing seasonal variations), with scheduled rains timed for maximized agriculture.

Perhaps more important than that, lands that fall now under the low precipitation zones could suddenly become productive and give rise to prosperous urban areas.

One important distinction that must me made is that there is climate and there is weather. Weather is the very unpredictable, short-term trends in atmospheric conditions. It’s ‘ruled’ by the same kind of rules of a lottery game. Climate refers to the (predictable) long term trends of those conditions in a region, averaged over a time frame.

Unfortunately, this distiction is often forgotten in those who denial climate change. A commonplace argument is that you can’t make statements about the climate because it’s unpredictable (but that would be weather). What is true indeed is that it’s not simple to make assessments about climate. It’s still one of the most poorly understood fields of science – as it should be with dealing with planet-scale complex systems.

Because it’s so poorly understood, you probably shouldn’t mess with climate. But we will ignore this advice for the fun of it.

If you had to choose one to have absolute control, you would pick climate. As much as you might want the rain not to ruin you sunday barbecue, you would want more to have enough food for the next generations.

Researching a climate modification system should be viewed as an investiment. Consider for a moment the material cost of hurricanes. According to one source, Katrina (2005) alone costed $ ~106bi in damage. Losses in agricultural production probably mount billions per year in the US alone. To prevent only a fraction of these losses with some investment could prove worthwhile.

The truth is that, as of now, there is no known technique that can deliver all that has been promised above. The best thing we could do is to prevent things from getting any worse, by compromising and making the damned lifestyle changes.

The closest I could find to a climate modification is called cloud seeding, a process to artificially create rain when desired, by seeding a cloud with selected chemicals. It’s controversial, and dangerously close to hocus pocus. Apparently China is one of the leading powers in this enterprise, and has been doing it for quite some time.

Another proposed solution for climate change is to install space mirrors, obstacles to sunlight, in space. They could be used to reflect some of the light and reduce warming. If we could have control over what areas would be shaded (what is considerably more challenging) we could in principle engineer the climate of Earth.

Let’s tackle a small part of the challenge here. Cloud seeding uses water that is already in the atmosphere. But that is not always the case.

Could we heat enough water to make a rain?

We will answer the question on the basis of whether the energy used, or power, is within what our civilization produces. There are technological or practical issues that are not covered here. We will also be making a number of guesses.

The energy is:








Suppose the rain falls over an area A in m2 with E millimeters. If we imagine a box with a m2 the height of the water collumn would be E mm. So the mass of water is


Plugging it into the other equation, and using the values:


The area used is not that big. It’s the area of Madison, Wisconsin. I picked it because it’s very dry but surrounded by water bodies.

That’s a lot of energy up there. Heating water is very energy consuming. To put this number into a perspective, lets say we are building a rain in a week, or 6.048E+5 s. The power required is then: 6.36E+8 W. Comparing to one of the huge hydro powerplants, it’s about 4.5% of it’s maximum output.

So it would seem, at first glance, that if we wanted to build ‘boilers’ to heat water into the atmosphere it would be within our grasp. Dedicated power plants (moved by renewable sources) built to boil water, on locations where the water would be carried into a desired target site by winds.


If the water would effectively go where it’s supposed to, or if it would disperse into the atmosphere is a whole other history. Not every location is suitable for this, as a deep understanding of the particular wind patterns is required. Ultimately, you could add an effective factor from 0 to 1 into these calculations. If this factor is too small (say <0.01) it renders this idea unpractical.

If you placed several boiler units at sea along a typical wind route, hoping to be more moisture left for the air masses inside the continent, you would probably end up with increased rainfall along the coast line too. That could be inconvenient, depending on case. These units are supposed to be central controlled and only turned on when necessary. It’s implied that they are, somehow, more efficient than natural evaporation.

Another alternative for heating water is a sun gun (remember Die Another Day?). How would you reposition a 10km2 mirror with ease I really can’t say.

Making not rain when desired, on the other hand, seems quite harder to imagine. That is unfortunate, all evidence points out to a general increase in precipitation with climate change.

[IMAGE: ‘Bad’ weather over a urban area, unkown location.]





Idea #18: Space Elevator

Space elevators are fascinating. I can spend days wondering how they could possibly be built, with what fancy materials, and how would it be the new era of space exploration they could enable to man.

We’ve discussed on an earlier entry how expensive was the cost of placing material in orbit, and how that’s one of the things in the way of our voyage to the final frontier. A space elevator is a thing that comes precisely to change this scenario.

A 2013 study by the International Academy of Astronautics concluded that a space elevator is feasible, and will probably start being constructed as early as 2035. I might be something that our generation will witness after all, with some luck. It surprised me to know that there are several competitions for developing aspects of its construction and operation. So far, timid efforts.

On the other end of this, there is considerable skepticism due to dificulties such as the effective material strengh of carbon nanotubes and space debries. So I’d say it’s 50/50 right now that a space elevator will ever be build.

I really can’t add much to this wonderful BBC critic that is done here. There you will find the basic idea of a space elevator and the challenges in building such a structure. A good overview, more scientific, is presented by this short page.

What I can do is add is my own (crazy) idea of how one should be build:

I understand that one of the bottlenecks of designs for the space elevator is the tensile strengh of the cable (the tether). It requires very sturdy materials, far from what we conventionally use. This could be around the number of 63MPa for carbon nanotubes, while for steel it’s much higher, 383GPa. It’s not a simple thing to keep ~100km of cable standing, even if it’s made fairly hollow.

So it ocurred to me, what if reduced this load by actively lifting the structure?

The idea is to place electrical turbines periodically along the structure, for as long as the atmosphere makes it convenient. 


A tricky part was thinking of a section that would hold the turbines and still allow movement of the climber vehicles.

The turbine is required to not only lift the aditional weight of itself, but to give an upward/downward lift where required, thus reducing the tension on the structure. Without detailing how these turbines work it’s not possible to say if this would work at all!

No doubt that this entails a serious energy drain, as well as added construction and maintenance costs. I thought that at first these turbines would be powered by power plants on the ground and, when construction is completed, by solar energy from a space station on the counterweight. It should be, as much as possible, self-sustainable or else it would compromise its purpose.

For simplicity, the turbines would be placed on opposite sides of the tether. Two lifter vehicle would pass on the sides of it. You should be able to make the climber the size you want, possibly with an aerodynamic shape. The TT cable cross section increases with the size, though, so there is a trade-off.

What if a turbine breaks? Well that’s a problem. Maybe you could have multiple turbines in each unit, redundant, so that it can hold off until maitenance fix a broken one.

Sure this doesn’t fix the strengh problem all the way through, but it could reduce enough the problem to allow materials like carbon nanotubes to do the rest.


The International Space Station in 2006. NASA, image source.

*Note: The content of these notes is not endorsed or affiliated with NASA/ESA, and express solely the author’s view.

[IMAGE: Photo taken from the ISS during a flyby of Super Typhoon Noru. NASA, image source]




Idea #17: Artificial Islands

As humans, we are proud of our skill to modify the environment. It’s more than a matter of making life easier, it’s necessary for our survival. It’s something unheard in nature a species so capable of that, for better or worse.

But we have yet to create artificial islands far from the continental shelf. We are bound to pretty much the original disposition of landmasses on Earth. Consider how many wars waged had their outcome influenced by this very same land disposition.

Let’s give this idea some thought, what if we created an island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean?

You’d probably want to do it over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, as there are already a handful of natural islands there as well as seamounts like Mt. Atlantis. The water depth seems to range from 300m to 7000m. It can go much more deeper in marine trenches.

You would want a location that is as far as possible from other landmasses, but as shallow as possible. Also, it could be along some interesting route between continents. Playing with a layer in ArcGIS Ocean Basemap yielded some interesting locations:

  1. LAT. 43°20’51” LONG. -30°5’56”. Depth=187m, between Canada and Europe.
  2. LAT. 5°37’19” LONG. -26°53’13”. Depth=511m, Mt. Knipovich,  between Brazil and Africa.
  3. LAT. 32°2’30” LONG. -40°15’59”. Depth=791m, halfway between Bermudas and Açores.

Unfortunately I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the information, but I’m confident that with proper data many other possible sites around the world could be uncovered.

Assume a gigantic feat of enginnering where we detonate mountains around the world, shovel desert sands, drag rivers and ship all of this material into a point in the ocean. It forms a cone underwater, and we will assume that it’s height (the depth) is twice the radius.


That would be for the depths above:

  1. V=1.71E6 m3, or a mass of 3.29E9 kg;
  2. V=3.49E7 m3, or a mass of 6.71E10 kg;
  3. V=1.29E8 m3, or a mass of 2.49E11 kg;

An average density of 1920kg/m3 was used in this calculations. To players of the good old SimCity, this is why you can’t reclaim water lands without cheating.

Supermassive ships can carry as much as 4E8 kg of cargo. That would still mean around 9 trips for the first site, and 623 for the last one. Clearly for the deepest one it’s required to strip a chain of mountains in order to get so much material. Not a cone shaped base, then.

There is the possibility of a concrete and steel legs supporting the structure, for depths in the range of 10-350m. Bear in mind that a typical oil rig has just the area of 2 football fields and very big collums. Space is tight there, with much use of verticalization.

It seems best to consider an option that involves floating, as done with the deep waters oil platforms. Even steel-concrete platforms can float, like the Olympus (Mars B). These structures are moored to the seabed. One can’t deny the ingenuity of the oil industry. They are ready to withstand big waves and the even survive an iceberg. Though this does not come from my own experience, they also sway a lot too.


Space photo of St. Helena Island, one of the most isolated islands in the world, in the South Atlantic Ocean. This volcanic island is one of the tops of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. image source

Ok. Suppose you do build your artificial island somehow. Why would you bother to?

Well there is all sorts of cool stuff that you can do with your very own island.

The first thing that comes to mind is to build a series of small marine platforms, linked to each other. These would be close to shore, making construction easier and cheaper. From one platform to another a network of supporting ropes are used to farm seaweed, such Laminaria sp.

These would in turn support fish population, boosting labor intensive fishing communities. It would produce biomass for green fuel, if processed. There are numbers that with 9% of the ocean waters devoted to active seaweed farming we would no longer need fossil fuels. Far from being cheap, or free of environmental costs, it’s a very interesting solution.

The second thing that comes to mind is a (wild!) idea of building an island so massive that a mid-sized plane could land on it. Spread a few of these airport islands on key locations and you have no need for larger craft anymore – what means that more birds can make the same trip, reducing costs.

The third idea is to gradually attach large, floating islands and build a floating city, in locations along a shipping route or mirroring coastal cities. They would live of everything that the sea can offer. Harbours able to dock a medium hull sized ship would actively extend the range of smaller ships, rendering trips cheaper and safer. The thing is that I can’t think of no activity that would generate enough revenue to maintain such a city, unless it was also an oil rig or could break even as a supply outpost.

Maybe you would build your very own island just to have have a new sovereign country. I’m no expert at all in international law but I don’t think there is quite a precedent to creating an artificial island in international waters. It seem to be one of the few opportunities to implement your own vision of what a country should be, in a world where the board is already set. Needs to be pointed out that it would be extremely dependent, though.

[IMAGE: Coconut beach, unknown location. image source]



Idea #16: Garbage to Space

Environmental concerns are usually set aside. In fact, today you can count the times when a more costly solution to a problem is chosen for being more interesting in the long run. Yet you don’t always choose the cheapest car out there, you pick the best.

Think about one thing for a second. First, we invent the concept of price and cost. Our civilization starts to emit massive amounts of carbon dioxide to fuel its development (that in turn disrupt the world climate). We develop solutions like electric vehicles and solar energy. But we label these solutions more costly on the basis of the concept we develop centuries ago.

Why not develop a new concept for cost for things that are tied to our survival? Is our thinking so rigid to the point we can’t adapt? Lets head to the idea, this is clearly becoming a speech of sort.

Why not ferry all the waste products on Earth to space?

By all the waste I’m not talking about the ordinary waste that could be decomposed here on a reasonable timetable, or that can be recycled with more or less effort. I’m talking about the most pernicious waste like nuclear reactor’s by-products or extremely toxic chemical substances.

This is explored in sci-fi, not at all an idea to dismiss at first glance. On Star Trek, the Malon’s homeworld was a glistening paradise due to their exports of waste to space. We are assuming no one is out there to be bothered by it, and to best knowledge this seems to be the case.

The reason we are not doing it right now is twofold:

First. we don’t quite have the space age technology required to build anything as impressive as a garbage scow. Not saying we couldn’t, if we put our minds to it, though. It’s a great undertaking to manage the scientific missions alone, much less missions with other purposes.

This, in part, translate to the second reason: the cost of sending a kg to space is simply too high.

It’s difficult to get a solid number on this, but this source states that to simply put a mass in orbit it costs ~U$ 50,000/kg. To take it further into a suitable dispose location would take much, much more than that. It is expected to decrease with time, but it might not be as fast as our civilization needs with the current investment.


Iceberg in Greenland. Reducing emissions by making different choices now can ensure the future of the polar caps and the sea level. How much will it cost us, in the future, per m2 of land lost?  image source

There are roughly 250,000 tonnes of stored nuclear waste on the world. The math says thats to put this up there it’s more money than what is circulating in the US at the moment. Energy is not free, and it costs a great deal to make it clean. It is our unwillingness to meet this price that is usually the issue.

If we did develop a space-faring waste export industry it would probably require a shipyard in orbit, as well as something like an space elevator. I would also would take a breakthrough in propulsion technology, as I don’t see we ferrying tons of waste on these chemical rockets. The good news is that could be even as simple as an unmanned craft carrying the waste payload. It doesn’t need to return.

There is a lot of suitable places to dispose it – though it might be best to know a little more about them first. You could use one or the uninhabitable planets, or one of the billion asteroids. Just pick a barren rock without any minerals of value (or life on sight) and fill it with trash.

Or you could ship it to the Sun. Perhaps it not our sun, on which we rely completely. Though I’m pretty confident the sun woudn’t mind all the waste we could ever produce, there is the off chance it could disrupt it’s lifecycle.

I’d also leave the Moon out of the list, doesn’t feel right to pollute it until its potential for colonization is properly adressed. If you have enough fuel you could let it wander the void in some direction slowly, surely it can drift for eons without disturbing anyone. The chance that it would eventually find its way into an intelligent species world is negligeable (with information to date).

If the prospect of becoming a civilization that dumps it’s waste somewhere else seems unappealing, you should consider two rough estimates. There could be as much as 100 billions of stars in the Milky Way alone. The average distance between the stars is 347 lightyears. We don’t really fathom how vast space is. Surely there is room for this.

You should also consider that in all the past of mankind it has produced waste and transported it out of sight. It’s required for our level of technology. Maybe this technology (and perhaps more importanly, our priorities) will allow us to manage and reuse increasingly better our resources in the future.

[IMAGE: Industrial site with power lines, unknown location. image source]


Idea #15: Game ‘Zealots’

This is will be an idea for a game, and I’ve named it Zealots.

I always had the feeling that our sports (eg. basketball, soccer..) don’t really follow our level of technological refinement. They are often low tech – a good thing because it requires little resources, but it also means not taking advantage of our accumulated knowledge. Most games also favor physical prowess instead of strategy, rather than finding a balance.

Zealots is a game played in a special electronic court. Two teams of seven players each try to control a ball and score it, by hitting a round elevated target in the opposite side. The ball must be passed or walked (with dribbling) all the way to the target zone, where it can be shoot. Simple enough, a lot like handball so far. Let’s name the teams Red and Blue.

However at the start the game, the target for both teams is blocked (hitting it with the ball does nothing). The court has flat electronic tiles that can light up, similar to a dancefloor. When the game starts, a computer chooses a team to start at random, and a round begins.

Say the computer chooses team Red. It’s their turn to attack. Then a random tile somewhere in the court lights up in red. This tile unblocks the target of team Blue. If a team Blue player gets there and steps on the tile the target remains blocked, a defence, and the round is done.

If a player from team Red steps on it, two things happen: the target of team Blue lights up, and can now be hit for score by Red; and two tiles in the court light up blue. These tiles can defuse the blue target if they are both hit by Blue. If Red hits them it does nothing, it’s not for them. Red must protect them from Blue, as well as attack the target.

In the end of the round, the computer sorts again after a small resting break. It’s a game of chance too, but matches should be even if long enough. So both teams are always divided between defense or attack.


A Zealots round. Note that only players of the same side as the target may enter the grayed defense zone.

Above is a possible courtsize (based on the golden ratio!) with the same length as a NBA basketball court, but somewhat larger in width. A possible game situation is presented, moments after the attack tile is hit.

There is plenty of room for strategy on Zealots. The number of players in attack/defense at a time is not fixed by a rule, rather it’s meant for the team to decide. For example, after enabling the score, an attacking team could have 4 players trying to score and 3 defending the defusing tiles. Or 3 and 4, and so on. The defending team could have 4 defending the target and 3 in active defense, trying to defuse and end the round.

Tackling (like rugby) is allowed in this game, until the other player is down, to prevent a player from hitting a live tile. Perhaps helmets are a requirement for safety. After being tackled to the ground a player must return to it’s defense zone. I figured it should still retain some barbaric trait as a true sport. Expect awesome and completely random tackles.

I didn’t mention this, but players use some sort short range RF transmitter on the shoes to hint the tiles of their presence. The floor should also have a rugged layer for friction. A cool thing today is that there is tech to detect falls, like here, although a bit more of search seems to show the company is not in business anymore.

There are two problem that I though that could happen in this game:

What if, during Red’s attack, team Blue catches the ball? Well the ball is not meant for them in this round, so you could add the rule that the defending team must always be passing the ball around, to a different player every time. That is bound to return the ball to Red eventually, but also give Blue an advantage if it captures it.

The second problem is a stalemate problem. Say the teams are locked up in defensive situations. The game would become dull then. This is unlikely because eventually someone would tackle one another and the game would go on. But if this becomes an issue, timing a round to an appropriate time could solve it.

Score is kept in the usual manner, the player with most hits on target wins. In off hours, the court can be used to display maze patterns for kids or for dancing. It could help to offset the costs of building it.

If you build a Zealots court, make sure to send me a ticket for a season. Feel free to twist this idea as you please: you could base it on basketball, instead of handball, or maybe not allow tackling if you want a cleaner game. Thanks for bearing with me, have a good game!

[IMAGE: A handball player mid-air. image source]

Idea #12: Trackable Money

A very curious feature of this invention we call currency is that you can’t track it with ease. Pick a dollar bill in your hands, can you say if the past owner of that money was your employer, or if you got it from the market? No, most likely you can’t.

Short of conducting an investigation, money is virtually trackless. Owned by who posseses it, one needs simply to present it to benefit from it’s credit feature.

The average people need not know the origin of the money, but this information is relevant for governments, companies and organizations. A government is interested to know if money was involved in illicit activities, as well as to keep track of taxes, for example. A company would be interested in not being associated with crime.

There are means to track large flows of money. For example, any bank transaction higher than a set amount is notified to regulating banks. Personal intensive investigations, with correlating databases, can eventually uncover money laundering. But there is hardly enough people to investigate the population, so only a small fraction of the infractions are punished.

But how one could make money more trackable?

The first step into achieving this is to abolish completely the paper and coin currency. It’s simply impossible to keep track. Instead, favor electronic payment options. We will need to redesign currency as well as the infrastructure used by it.

Money currently has only one relevant attribute: it’s value, how much it represents. What if we added to every cent a list of owners, as well as a past transactions field and a timestamp?

This is a very simplified example of what I’m proposing. Say that for a particular cent:


The more down in the table you go the further back in time you are. So this cent went from the Government of Indiana all the way to Mary, who owns it now in her bank account. John loaned this cent from Peter in 15/06/2017.

Of course there could me more fields in this, as well as codes representing each type of transaction, estabilishment and person. This would have to be very synthetic however, since in the US alone there are  $1.56 trillion of dollars in circulation. Imagine the computer space required to store this information. Probably a record too far in the past could not be kept. Nothing is free of charge.

So a person would have many blocks of cents with different history in his/her bank account. Of course to him/hers, it could only be displayed the total amount.

In every store, there would be credit cards like machines that would register the transactions. They could also be owned by people, or be available in banks for people to register personal transactions such as loans. The banking system would compensate these transactions as it normally does.

Of course, people could still falsify the entries somehow. That’s why there would have to be standart security measures, like the ones used today to prevent credit card fraud. It may seem like too much an imposition to force everyone to use electronic payment means, but there could be considerable gain.

It would be required to process this information. The second step of this endeavour is to build advanced computer routines for scanning infractions, and apply them continuously to the data gathered.

For example, a large amount of small transactions from young consuming group could indicate a drug selling bussiness. A large donation from a company to a politician could trigger an investigation. An unusual growth in income could potentially lead to identifying criminal organizations.

People would ultimately barter or use a black market money, but it’s a lot harder to try to by crack with your iPhone than it is with money.

When in doubt, always follow the money trail.

[IMAGE: French Pacific Territories currency note, circa 1985 image source]