Overhauling Existing Infrastructure

In its latest issue, Popular Science presents a set of ideas for renovating America’s out-dated infrastructural systems. In many cases, the ideas presented leapfrog existing infrastructural solutions and offer dramatic innovations. Popular Science argues that “the solution isn’t patches, it’s an overhaul.” A range of ideas are outlined for transportation, water, sewage, telecommunications, and other areas.


Popular Science argues: “Chicago road crews are scrambling to fill 67,000 potholes a month. Communities in Pennsylvania rely on 100-year-old water pipes made of wood. Squirrels still cause widespread blackouts. The country’s 600,000 bridges, four million miles of roads, and 30,000 wastewater plants desperately need attention.”

Use Elevated Trackless Train Systems: “To save the multibillion-dollar cost of clearing 24-foot-wide swaths for new track, trainmaker Tubular Rail wants to shoot trains up to 150 mph over existing infrastructure through a series of elevated rings 100 feet apart. As it passes through each ring, the 400-foot-long carbon-fiber car is pushed along by electrically powered steel rollers. To save juice, the motors gear up only as a train approaches; up to 90 percent of the kinetic energy of the train can be recaptured as the rollers wind down.”

Integrate Concrete That Heals Its Own Cracks: To prevent additional bridge failures, concrete could heal itself when cracks form. “A new concrete mix developed by Victor Li, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan, contains unhydrated cement grains that are activated when exposed to carbon dioxide in air and water from rain—exactly what you’d find in a small crack in the road. The reaction produces a calcium carbonate seal, restoring the slab to its normal load-bearing capacity.” Read more transportation ideas


“Our water infrastructure is older than our roads and power grid, with many pipes sitting in trenches dug by hand in the 1800s. In parts of the Northeast, up to 50 percent of our clean water leaks into the ground between the treatment center and the tap. Across the country, we lose an average of seven billion gallons of drinking water a day to leaks—and we have an 800,000-mile network of pipes that needs constant monitoring and repair. We also use far too much energy treating all our water, regardless of its end use, and piping it long distances.”

Mimic the Water Purifying System of Plants: “Plants pull water into their roots by osmosis, using tiny channels called aquaporins, a method that doesn’t require any energy. Now a Danish company called Aquaporin is developing a membrane based on that same principle to extract pure H20 from saltwater at about a third of the cost and a tenth the energy of conventional reverse-osmosis systems. The membrane’s protein channels, each just a few nanometers across, allow a stream of water molecules—and only water molecules—to pass single file at a rate of one billion per second. No pumps are needed to force the water across the channels.”

Clot Leaking Water Pipes: “Scottish oil-and-gas company Brinker Technology has a no-dig system of pipe repair that mimics the way clots form at a cut. When a leak is detected, a service truck could drive to a nearby fire hydrant and pump in Platelets—squishy, rubberlike cubes and balls ranging in size from less than a millimeter to nearly two inches across, depending on the size of the leak. The Platelets travel in the pipe until the outflowing pressure pulls them toward to the crack. There, they bunch together to form a long-lasting clot. Utilities don’t even need to know exactly where the leak is located.”

Reline Old Pipes Instead of Laying New Ones: “Another way of fixing broken pipe without summoning the backhoes is to coat it with a new inner lining—already common today in sewage pipes, which are under less pressure because they rely on gravity to move their contents along. But Missouri-based Insituform Technologies’s new InsituMain liner can withstand the internal forces of pressurized pipe, allowing in-place repair of drinking-water mains. Instead of a full-length trench, two access points (up to 700 feet apart) are cut on either side of the broken pipe. Then workers insert at one end a flexible liner made from a felt-and-glass-fiber composite and soaked in thermosetting epoxy resin and pull it through the inner walls of the crumbling pipe. Exposing the liner to steam or hot water stiffens and seals it, leaving it flush with the inside of the pipe.”  Read more water ideas


“Every year, Americans produce 12 trillion gallons of wet sewage and burn 21 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity to clean it to drinking-water standards. Why not put the smelly stuff to good use? Thanks to clever new technology, sewage will be reclaimed to provide power, produce fertilizer and, eventually, yield clean water.”

Turn Wastewater into Fertilizer: “Believe it or not, the wastewater of 100,000 people could yield an annual crop of about 200 tons of high-grade fertilizer. The Vancouver company Ostara hopes to use this fact to overcome our shrinking supply of recoverable phosphorus rock, one of three essential components of modern fertilizer. Ostara’s PEARL Nutrient Recycling system extracts phosphates and other minerals like ammonia from municipal wastewater and then churns the nutrients into safe, slow-release fertilizer pellets sold under the name Crystal Green. The challenge is sequestering the urine, which accounts for just 1 percent of sewage by volume. One solution: source-separated toilets (think: a little bowl within a big bowl), already being tried in Sweden and Denmark.” 

Tap Sewage for Energy: “Bruce Logan, a professor of environmental engineering at Penn State University, has designed a microbial fuel cell to turn the chemical energy in sewage directly into electricity—and clean the sewage in the process. Bacteria housed on a graphite fiber anode break down the fats, proteins and sugars in sewage, freeing up a steady stream of electrons, which the bacteria transfer directly into the electrode. Those electrons move to the cathode, providing electrical power and, at the cathode, producing hydrogen gas.” Read more sewage ideas

Image credit: Popular Science

One thought on “Overhauling Existing Infrastructure

  1. abbas 03/09/2011 / 12:49 pm

    we always need to incorporate a little more than we think but i agree that the buildings in a usa could do with change as i am thinking of taking my wife and children maybe there too.

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