Category Archives: Economics

Which Is Greener?

Driving, or walking? John Tierney stirs up a hornet’s nest of vegans and other morally overrighteous high-horse riders (see comments). I mean, to question Ed Begley, Jr. Isn’t that just the height of apostacy?

This reminds me of a piece that I’ve been thinking of writing about overall energy and fuel costs, including human fuel. With the ethanol boondoggle, we’ve gone back to the point at which we’re using crops for transportation (something we largely left behind at the end of the nineteenth century) and we now have increasing prices in both food and fuel as they compete with each other for the same farmland. This isn’t a good trend for the Third World (consider that one of the effects of the ethanol subsidies has been a dramatic increase in corn and tortilla costs in Mexico, making a poor country even more so).

Better Print Some More Money

Zimbabwe’s inflation rate is 100,000%:

In Africa’s fastest shrinking economy, per capita gross domestic product in Zimbabwe fell from about $200 in 1996 to about $9 a head last year.

What a disaster Mugabe has been. It shows how easy it is to destroy a once-vibrant country (Rhodesia was the bread basket of southern Africa) with insane government policies. And the sad thing is that his fellow African autocrats refuse to denounce him. I’ll bet that if there was a free and fair election there today, the people would vote Ian Smith back in.

What Do They Know?

As Clark says, I don’t know why anyone would think that space scientists or astronauts are experts on business. I don’t really care what Kathy Sullivan thinks the prospects are for suborbital tourism, and if I thought that astronauts’ opinions on the matter were of value, I can find many astronauts (including John Herrington, Rick Searfoss, etc.) who would disagree with her.

And who is this “Alvin” Aldrin of which they speak? Is that Andy’s evil twin? When I do a search for “Alvin Aldrin” I only get one hit–this article.

A couple other questions for Alvin/Andy. What numbers was he using for the Raptor cost? Marginal, or average per-unit? It makes a big difference.

In addition, I always get annoyed when people use a military fighter as a cost analogue for a spaceship. A lot of that dollar-per-pound number for the plane comes from something in it that weighs nothing at all–software. The avionics for the weapons systems, and the defensive systems are non-trivial in cost as well. Designing a combat aircraft, designed to kill other things and avoid being actively killed by other things, is an entirely different problem than designing a vehicle that has to only contend with passive and predictable nature (and pretty benign nature, for the most part, at least for suborbital). I’d bet that Burt’s own cost numbers for the SS2 already put the lie to Andy’s chart.

[Late afternoon update]

Jeff Foust has a much more extensive writeup of the discussion, which he apparently attended. As I suspected, it was Andy, not Alvin, Aldrin.

A Kludge

Is this the future of air travel?

Engineers created the A2 with the failures of its doomed supersonic predecessor, the Concorde, very much in mind. Reaction Engines’s technical director, Richard Varvill, and his colleagues believe that the Concorde was phased out because of a couple major limitations. First, it couldn’t fly far enough. “The range was inadequate to do trans-Pacific routes, which is where a lot of the potential market is thought to be for a supersonic transport,” Varvill explains. Second, the Concorde’s engines were efficient only at its Mach-2 cruising speed, which meant that when it was poking along overland at Mach 0.9 to avoid producing sonic booms, it got horrible gas mileage. “The [A2] engine has two modes because we’re very conscious of the Concorde experience,” he says.

Those two modes–a combination of turbojet and ramjet propulsion systems–would both make the A2 efficient at slower speeds and give it incredible speed capabilities. (Engineers didn’t include windows in the design because only space-shuttle windows, which are too heavy for use in an airliner, can withstand the heat the A2 would encounter.) In the A2’s first mode, its four Scimitar engines send incoming air through bypass ducts to turbines. These turbines produce thrust much like today’s conventional jet engines–by using the turbine to compress incoming air and then mixing it with fuel to achieve combustion–and that’s enough to get the jet in the air and up to Mach 2.5. Once it reaches Mach 2.5, the A2 switches into its second mode and does the job it was built for. Incoming air is rerouted directly to the engine’s core. Now that the plane is traveling at supersonic speed, the air gets rammed through the engine with enough pressure to sustain combustion at speeds of up to Mach 5.

A combination turbofan/ramjet. Hokay.

If I understand this properly, the idea is to fly fast subsonic over land to avoid breaking windows, and then to go like a bat out of hell over the water. When I look at that design, I have to wonder how they can really get the range, with all of the drag that is implied from those huge delta wings, not to mention the wave drag at Mach 5. I also wonder where they put the hydrogen–that stuff is very fluffy, and needs large tanks. It’s probably not wet wing (it would be very structurally inefficient), which is why the fuselage must be so huge, to provide enough volume in there for it.

Sorry, but I don’t think that this will be economically viable. As is discussed in comments and the article, hydrogen is not an energy source–it’s an energy storage method, and it’s unclear how they’ll generate it without a greenhouse footprint. Moreover, it’s not as “green” as claimed, because dihydrogen monoxide itself is a greenhouse gas. I’ll bet that this thing has to fly at sixty thousand feet or more to get itself sufficiently out of the atmosphere to mitigate the drag problem, and that’s not a place where you want to be injecting a lot of water.

This concept doesn’t learn the true lessons of Concorde: like Shuttle, a lot of people have learned lessons from Concorde, but the wrong ones. The correct lesson is that we need to get rid of shock waves and drag. Once we do that, we’ll be able to cruise at reasonable speeds (say, Mach 2.5) everywhere, over both land and water, so we won’t have to build the vehicle out of exotic materials and eliminate windows. We’ll also be able to have fast transcontinental trips (two hours coast to coast) which is another huge market that this concept doesn’t address at all. Finally, it has to do it with a reasonable lift/drag ratio, so that ticket prices will be affordable. And I think that the fuel issue is superfluous–Jet A will be just fine for the planet, as long as fuel consumption is reasonable, which makes the vehicle design much easier, with much more dense fuel.

Fortunately, I’ve been working for over a decade with a company that thinks it knows how to do this, and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to start to move forward on it very soon.

[Via Clark Lindsey]

[Update in the late afternoon]

In response to the question in comments, there’s not much publicly available on the web about shock-free supersonics, but here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago on the subject.