From the Pages of the Technology Quarterly

by Reihan Salam

I always enjoy The Economist’s Technology Quarterly, just as I enjoy Scientific American’s occasional round-ups of “big ideas” from the last year. Let me briefly highlight a few pieces in this week’s edition of the Quarterly that might have public policy implications:

(1) “Air power on the cheap” describes the advent of “light-attack turbo-props,” airborne weapons platforms that have an impressive cost advantage over fighter jets:

A fighter jet can cost $80m; the 208B Caravan, a light-attack turboprop made by Cessna, costs barely $2m. It also costs as little as $500 an hour to run when it is in the air, compared with $10,000 or more for a fighter jet. And, unlike jets, turboprops can use roads and fields for take-off and landing.

And apparently these small planes have advantages over armed drones as well. Given my concerns about the cost of trained personnel, I was particularly impressed by this:

To land a chopper safely in the dirt requires sophisticated laser scanners to detect obstacles hidden by dust thrown up by the downdraught of the rotors. Such dust makes helicopter maintenance even more difficult than it is already. Maintaining turboprops, by contrast, is easy. According to Robyn Read, an air-power strategist at the Air Force Research Institute near Montgomery, Alabama, they can be “flown and maintained by plumbers.”

Light-attack turbo-props might prove the perfect weapon for an age of fiscal austerity.

(2) Air lubrication might be a cheap way to increase the fuel efficiency of container vessels, thus lowering the cost of transporting goods over long distances. 

(3) A new generation of airships could make clunky, hard-to-maintain heavy-transport helicopters obsolete. And they might also create a new luxury travel market. Perhaps commuters will be using these vehicles at some point in the near future. 

(4) While Dickson Despommier’s vision of vertical farming might prove too energy-intensive to be practicable, there is growing interest in using highly advanced single-story greenhouses to cultivate serious amounts of food in the heart of the rich world’s densest cities.

One idea, developed by Valcent, a vertical-farming firm based in Texas, Vancouver and Cornwall, is to use vertically stacked hydroponic trays that move on rails, to ensure that all plants get an even amount of sunlight. The company already has a 100-square-metre working prototype at Paignton Zoo in Devon, producing rapid-cycle leaf vegetable crops, such as lettuce, for the zoo’s animals. The VerticCrop system (pictured) ensures an even distribution of light and air flow, says Dan Caiger-Smith of Valcent. Using energy equivalent to running a desktop computer for ten hours a day it can produce 500,000 lettuces a year, he says. Growing the same crop in fields would require seven times more energy and up to 20 times more land and water.

Sounds very promising, particularly for those of us who love lettuce.

(5) The rise of white-space networking could drive down the cost of broadband access, and drive a stake through the heart of incumbent wireless business models.  

(6) Then there is a piece on small and medium-sized modular nuclear reactors, one of my favorite emerging technologies.

One advantage of small reactors is their modularity. Extra units can be added to a plant over the years, incrementally boosting output as capital becomes available and electricity demand rises. NuScale, of Corvallis, Oregon, offers “scalable” nuclear plants with reactors delivered by truck. A plant with 12 reactors, each with its own electricity-generating turbine, would cost about $2.2 billion and produce roughly a third as much power as a big facility. Since large plants can cost roughly three times as much, the cost of electricity would be about the same. Moreover, a modular facility would generate revenue as soon as the first reactor is fired up, after a few years of construction. A big reactor traditionally takes a decade to erect.

Cheap, quick, and carbon-free: not too shabby. Before we pour more resources into natural gas or clean coal, I’d suggest we give modular nukes some thought.