Trucks, Trains, Ships and Planes

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 21st, 2013

Technology 101

Big Over-the-Road Tractor Trailer Trucks have Big Wheels so they can have Big Brakes

If you buy a big boat chances are you have a truck or a big SUV to pull it.  For rarely do you see a small car pulling a large boat.  Have you ever wondered why?  A small car can easily pull a large boat on a level (or a near level) surface.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is stopping once it gets moving.  For that is a lot of mass.  Creating a lot of kinetic energy (one half of the mass times velocity squared).  Which is dissipated as heat as brake shoes or pads rub against the wheels.  This is why you need a big truck or SUV to pull a boat.  So you can stop it once it gets moving.

Big trucks and big SUVs have big wheels and big brakes.  Large areas where brake pads/shoes press against a rotating wheel.  All of which is heavy duty equipment.  That can grab onto to those wheels and slow them down.  Converting that kinetic energy into heat.  This is why the big over-the-road tractor trailer trucks have big wheels.  So they can have big enough brakes to stop that huge mass once it gets moving.  Without the brakes turning white hot and melting.  Properly equipped trucks can carry great loads.  Moving freight safely across our highways and byways.  But there is a limit to what they can carry.  Too much weight spread between too few axles will pound the road apart.  Which is why the state police weighs our trucks.  To make sure they have enough axles supporting the load they’re carrying.  So they don’t break up our roads.  And that they can safely stop.

It’s a little different with trains.  All train cars have a fixed number of axles.  But you will notice the size of the cars differ.  Big oversized boxcars carry a lot of freight.  But it’s more big than heavy.  Heavy freight, on the other hand, like coal, you will see in smaller cars.  So the weight they carry doesn’t exceed the permissible weight/axle.  If you ever sat at a railroad crossing as a train passed you’ve probably noticed that the rail moves as the train travels across.  Watch a section of rail the next time you’re stopped by a train.  And you will see the rail sink a little beneath the axle as it passes over.

If a Ship is Watertight and Properly Balanced it can be covered in Green Water and Rise back to the Surface

So the various sizes of train cars (i.e., rolling stock) keeps each car from being overloaded.  Unlike a truck.  Steel haulers and gravel trains (i.e., dump trucks) have numerous axles beneath the load they’re carrying.  But these axles are retractable.  For the more wheels in contact with the road the more fuel is needed to overcome the friction between the tires and the road.  And the more tires in contact with the road the more tire wear there is.  Tires and fuel are expensive.  So truckers like to have as few tires in contact with the road as possible.  When they’re running empty they will have as many of these wheels retracted up as possible.  Something you can’t do with a train.

That said, a train’s weight is critical for the safe operation of a train.  In particular, stopping a train.  The longer a train is the more distance it takes to stop.  It is hard to overload a particular car in the string of cars (i.e., consist) but the total weight tells engineers how fast they can go.  How much they must slow down for curves.  How much distance they need to bring a train to a stop.  And how many handbrakes to set to keep the train from rolling away after the pressure bleeds out of the train line (i.e., the air brakes).  You do this right and it’s safe sailing over the rails.  Ships, on the other hand, have other concerns when it comes to weight.

Ships float.  Because of buoyancy.  The weight of the load presses down on the water while the surface of the water presses back against the ship.  But where you place that weight in a ship makes a big difference.  For a ship needs to maintain a certain amount of freeboard.  The distance between the surface of the water and the deck.  Waves toss ships up and down.  At best you just want water spray splashing onto your deck.  At worst you get solid water (i.e., green water).  If a ship is watertight and properly balanced it can be covered in green water and rise back to the surface.  But if a ship is loaded improperly and lists to one side or is low in the bow it reduces freeboard.  Increases green water.  And makes it less likely to be able to safely weather bad seas.  The SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in 1975 while crossing Lake Superior in one of the worst storms ever.  She was taking on water.  Increasing her weight and lowering her into the water.  Losing freeboard.  Had increasing amounts of green water across her deck.  To the point that a couple of monster waves crashed over her and submerged her and she never returned to the surface.  It happened so fast that the crew was unable to give out a distress signal.  And as she disappeared below the surface her engine was still turning the propeller.  Driving her into the bottom of the lake.  Breaking the ship in two.  And the torque of the spinning propeller twisting the stern upside down.

Airplanes are the only Mode of Transportation that has two Systems to Carry their Load

One of the worst maritime disasters on the Great Lakes was the sinking of the SS Eastland.  Resulting in the largest loss of life in a shipwreck on the Great Lakes.  In total 844 passengers and crew died.  Was this in a storm like the SS Edmund Fitzgerald?  No.  The SS Eastland was tied to the dock on the Chicago River.  The passengers all went over to one side of the ship.  And the mass of people on one side of the ship caused the ship to capsize.  While tied to the dock.  On the Chicago River.  Because of this shift in weight.  Which can have catastrophic results.  As it can on airplanes.  There’s a sad YouTube video of a cargo 747 taking off.  You then see the nose go up and the plane fall out of the sky.  Probably because the weight slid backwards in the plane.  Shifting the center of gravity.  Causing the nose of the plane to pitch up.  Which disrupted the airflow over the wings.  Causing them to stall.  And with no lift the plane just fell out of the sky.

Airplanes are unique in one way.  They are the only mode of transportation that has two systems to carry their weight.  On the ground the landing gear carries the load.  In the air the wings carry the load.  Which makes taking off and landing the most dangerous parts of flying.  Because a plane has to accelerate rapidly down the runway so the wings begin producing lift.  Once they do the weight of the aircraft begins to transfer from the landing gear to the wings.  Allowing greater speeds.  However, if something goes wrong that interferes with the wings producing lift the wings will be unable to carry the weight of the plane.  And it will fall out of the sky.  Back onto the landing gear.  But once the plane leaves the runway there is nothing the landing gear can gently settle on.  And with no altitude to turn or to glide back to a runway the plane will fall out of the sky wherever it is.  Often with catastrophic results.

A plane has a lot of mass.  And a lot of velocity.  Giving it great kinetic energy.  It takes long runways to travel fast enough to transfer the weight of the aircraft from the landing gear to the wings.  And it takes a long, shallow approach to land an airplane.  So the wheels touch down gently while slowly picking up the weight of the aircraft as the wings lose lift.  And it takes a long runway to slow the plane down to a stop.  Using reverse thrusters to convert that kinetic energy into heat.  Sometimes even running out of runway before bringing the plane to a stop.  No other mode of transportation has this additional complication of travelling.  Transferring the weight from one system to another.  The most dangerous part of flying.  Yet despite this very dangerous transformation flying is the safest mode of traveling.  Because the majority of flying is up in the air in miles of emptiness.  Where if something happens a skilled pilot has time to regain control of the aircraft.  And bring it down safely.

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Static Friction, Kinetic Friction, Wheel, Axle, Roads, Steel Wheels, Steel Track, Coefficient of Friction and Intermodal Transportation

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 28th, 2012

Technology 101

Friction Pushes Back against us when we try to Push Something

Have you ever done any landscaping?  Buy some decorative rocks to cover the ground around your flowers and shrubs?  If you go to a home improvement store with a garden center you probably bought your decorative rocks by the bag.  And those bags are pretty heavy.  Say you have a pickup truck.  And the good people at the garden center bring out a pallet of stone bags on a pallet jack.  Placing it down next to your truck.  Before loading it in your tuck do this experiment.

Don’t really do this.  Just imagine if you did.  Squat down behind the pallet.  Place your hands on the pallet.  And push with all of your might.  What do you think would happen?  Would you send that pallet sliding across the pavement?  Or would you fall on your face as your feet slipped out from underneath you?  You’d be kissing the pavement.  And possibly giving yourself a good hernia.  Now if they had put that pallet of stone into your pickup truck and you put the truck into neutral and tried pushing that what do you think would happen?  You may still get a hernia but that truck would probably move.

A pallet of stone may be too heavy to push.  But a pickup truck with a pallet of stone in it may not be too heavy to push.  How can that be?  In a word, friction.  It’s that thing that pushes back when we try to push something.  The heavier something is and the more surface area in contact with the ground the more friction there is.  Which is why that pallet is hard to push.  The force of friction is so great that we can’t overcome it.  But something that can be almost 10 times heavier sitting on 4 rubber tires bolted onto a greased axle?  That’s a different story.

The Two Basic Types of Friction are Static Friction and Kinetic Friction

There are two basic types of friction at play here.  Static friction.  Which prevents us from pushing that pallet of stone.  And kinetic friction.  Which we would have experienced with that pallet of stones if we were able to overcome the static friction.  Kinetic friction is what we encounter when sliding something across the ground.  Static friction is greater than kinetic friction.  As it takes more effort to get something moving than keeping something moving.

Now here’s why we are able to push a pickup truck easier than a pallet of stones.  With a pallet there is 48″X40″ of surface area in contact with the ground producing a large amount of static friction to overcome.  Whereas on the pickup truck the only thing that slides are the axles in highly greased bearings.  Which offer very little static friction.  The rubber tires offer some static friction due to the immense weight of the truck pushing down on them, flattening the bottom of the tires somewhat.  Once the resistance of the flattened tires is overcome the rubber tires offer kinetic friction in the direction of travel.  While offering static resistance perpendicular to the direction of travel.  Keeping the truck from sliding away from the direction of travel.  Which works most times on dry and wet pavement.  But not so good on snow and ice.  As snow and ice offer little friction.

The wheel and axle changed the world.  Allowing people to move greater loads.  People could grow wheat and other food crops in distant areas and load them onto carts to transport them to cities.  Which is what the Romans did.  Using their roads for their wheeled transportation.  Which increased the speed and ease they could pull these large loads.  Sections of Roman roads have survived to this day.  And in them you can see centuries old wheel ruts worn into them.

Intermodal Transportation combines the Low Cost of Rail and the Convenience of Trucking

The basic wooden-spoke wheel remained in use for centuries.  From Roman times and earlier.  To 19th century America.  While we were still using the wooden-spoke wheel we began using something else that offered even less friction.  Iron wheels on iron rails.  Allowing great loads to be transported over great distances. The friction of an iron wheel on an iron track was so low that the drive wheels would slip when starting to pull a heavy load.  Or going up any significant grade.  To prevent this slip trains carried sand and deposited it on the track in front of the drive wheels.  To increase the friction of the drive wheels for starting and travelling on inclined grades.   Iron wheels and iron track gave way to steel wheels and steel track.  Allowing trains to pull even greater loads.

There is no more cost-efficient way to move heavy freight over land than by train.  Thanks to exceptionally low coefficients of friction.  And the less friction there is the less fuel they need to pull those heavy loads.  Which is the reason why so many of our roads are pocked with potholes.  Roads are only so strong.  They can only carry so much weight before they break apart.  Which is why the heavier load a truck carries the more axles they must distribute that weight over.  Putting more tires on the pavement.  Increasing the friction to overcome.  Requiring greater fuel consumption.  Which is why a lot of truckers cheat.  And try to get by on fewer axles.  Increasing the weight per axle.  Which hammers potholes into the pavement.

The reason why we use trucks to transport so much freight is that there aren’t railroad tracks everywhere.  But we can still make use of the railroad tracks that are near our shipping points.  By combining rail and truck transportation.  We call it intermodal.  Using more than one means of conveyance.  Putting freight into containers.  Then putting the containers onto truck trailers.  Then driving them to an intermodal yard.  Where they take the containers from the truck trailers and put them onto rail cars.  Where they will travel great distances at low friction.  And low costs.  Then at another intermodal yard they’ll transfer the containers back to truck trailers for a short ride to their final destination.  Getting the best of both worlds.  The low-cost of rail transport thanks to the low friction of steel wheels on steel rail.  And the convenience of truck transportation that can go where the rails don’t.

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Steam Locomotive, Diesel Electric Locomotive, Interstate Highway System, Airplane, Air Travel, Refined Petroleum Products and Pipelines

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 21st, 2012

Technology 101

The Diesel Electric Locomotive could pull a Train Cross Country and into the Heart of a City with Minimal Pollution

The 1920s were transformative years.  The Roaring Twenties.  It’s when we moved from animal power to mechanical power.  From the horse and plow to the tractor.  From steam power to electric power.  From the telegraph to the telephone.  From the gas lamp to the electric light.  From crowded mass transit to the freedom of the automobile.  From manual labor to the assembly line. 

You can see a glimpse of that world in 1920’s Steam Train Journey Across the United States – Westward Ho!  The beginning of the modern city.  With modern street lighting.  Electric power and telephone overhead wiring.  Streets crowded with automobiles.  Tractors and mechanical harvesters on the farm.  And, of course, the steam locomotive.  Connecting distant cities.  Transferring the freight to feed the modern industrial economy.  And shipping the finished goods.  As well as all that food from the farm to our grocer’s shelves.  Proving the 1920s were vibrant economic times.  With real economic growth.  And not a speculative bubble.  For there was nothing speculative about all of this technology becoming a part of our way of life.

Of course the technology wasn’t perfect.  The coal-burning locomotives belched black smoke and ash wherever they went.  Which wasn’t all that bad in the open country where a train or two passed.  But it was pretty dangerous in tunnels.  Which had to be short lest they suffocated their passengers.  (One of the reasons why all subways use electric trains).  Making for some long and winding railroads in mountainous terrain.  To go around mountains instead of under them.  Slowing trains and increasing travel time.  And they were pretty unpleasant in the cities.  Where the several rail lines converged.  Bringing a lot of coal-burning locomotives together.  Creating a smoky haze in these cities.  And leaving a layer of ash everywhere.  The cleaner diesel-burning locomotives changed that.  The diesel electric locomotive could pull a train cross country and into the heart of a city with a minimal amount of pollution.  As long as they kept their engines from burning rich.  Which they would if they operated them with dirty air filters.  Reducing fuel efficiency by having the air-fuel mixture contain too much fuel.  And causing these engines to belch black smoke.  Similar to diesel trucks running with dirty air filters.

Airplanes can travel between Two Points in a Direct Line at Faster Speeds than a Train or Bus with Minimal Infrastructure

Trains shrunk our country.  Brought distant cities together.  Allowing people to visit anywhere in the continental United States.  And the railroads profited well from all of this travel.  Until two later developments.  One was the interstate highway system.  That transferred a lot of freight from the trains to trucks.  As well as people from trains to buses and cars.  And then air travel.  That transferred even more people from trains to airplanes.  This competition really weakening railroads’ profits.  And pretty much put an end to passenger rail.  For people used the interstate highway system for short trips.  And flew on the long ones.  Which was quicker.  And less expensive.  Primarily because airplanes flew over terrain that was costly to avoid.

Highways and railroads have to negotiate terrain.  They have to wind around obstacles.  Go up and down mountainous regions.  Cross rivers and valleys on bridges.  Travel under hilly terrain through tunnels.  And everywhere they go they have to travel on something built by man.  All the way from point A to point B.  Now trucks, buses and cars have an advantage here.  We subsidize highway travel with fuel taxes.  Trucking companies, bus lines and car owners didn’t have to build the road and infrastructure connecting point A to point B.  Like the railroads do.  The railroads had to supply that very extensive and very expensive infrastructure themselves.  Paid for by their freight rates and their passenger ticket sales.  And when there were less expensive alternatives it was difficult to sell your rates and fares at prices high enough to support that infrastructure.  Especially when that lower-priced alternative got you where you were going faster.  Like the airplane did.

Man had always wanted to fly.  Like a bird.  But no amount of flapping of man-made wings got anyone off the ground.  We’re too heavy and lacked the necessary breast muscles to flap anything fast enough.  Not to mention that if we could we didn’t have any means to stabilize ourselves in flight.  We don’t have a streamline body or tail feathers.  But then we learned we could create lift.  Not by flapping but my pushing a curved wing through the air.  As the air passes over this curved surface it creates lift.  Generate enough speed and you could lift quite a load with those wings.  Including people.  Cargo.  Engines.  And fuel.  Add in some control elements and we could stabilize this in flight.  A tail fin to prevent yawing (twisting left and right) from the direction of flight.  Like a weathercock turns to point in the direction of the wind.  And an elevator (small ‘wing’ at the tail of the plane) to control pitch (nose up and nose down).  Ailerons correct for rolling.  Or turn the plane by rolling.  By tipping the wings up or down to bank the airplane (to turn left the left aileron goes up and the right aileron goes down).  And using the elevator on the take-off roll to pitch the nose up to allow the plane to gain altitude.  And in flight it allows the plane to ascend or descend to different altitudes.  Put all of this together and it allows an airplane to travel between points A and B while avoiding all terrain.  In a direct line between these two points.  At a much faster speed than a train, bus or car can travel.  And the only infrastructure required for this are the airports at points A and B.  And the few en route air traffic controllers between points A and B. Which consisted of radar installations and dark rooms with people staring at monitors.  Communicating to the aircraft.  Helping them to negotiate the air highways without colliding into other aircraft.  And air travel took off, of course, in the 1920s.  The Roaring Twenties.  Those glorious transformative years.

Refined Petroleum Products have Large Concentrations of Energy and are the Only Fuel that allows Air Travel

The most expensive cost of flying is the fuel cost.  The costlier it is the costlier it is to fly.  Not so for the railroads.  Because their fuel costs aren’t the most expensive cost they have.  Maintaining their infrastructure is.  They can carry incredible loads cross country for a small price per unit weight.  Without swings in fuel prices eating into their profits.  Making them ideal to transfer very large and/or heavy loads over great distances.  Despite dealing with all the headaches of terrain.  For neither a plane nor a truck can carry the same volume a train can.  And heavier loads on a plane take far greater amounts of fuel.  This additional fuel itself adding a great amount of weight to the aircraft.  Thus limiting its flight distance.  Requiring refueling stops along the way.  Making it a very expensive way to transport heavy loads.  Which is why we ship coal on trains.  Not on planes.

Trains are profitable again.  But they’re not making their money moving people around.  Their money is in heavy freight.  Iron ore.  Coke.  And, of course, coal.  To feed the modern industrial economy.  Stuff too heavy for our paved roads.  And needed in such bulk that it would take caravans of trucks to carry what one train can carry.  But even trains can’t transport something in enough bulk to make it cost efficient.  Refined petroleum.  Gasoline.  Diesel.  And jet fuel.  For these we use pipelines.  From pipelines we load gas and diesel onto trucks and deliver it to your local gas station.  We run pipelines directly to the fuel racks in rail yards.   And run pipelines to our airports.  Where we pump jet fuel into onsite storage tanks in large fuel farms.  Which we then pump out in another set of pipelines to fueling hydrants located right at aircraft gates.

These refined petroleum products carry large concentrations of energy.  Are easy to transport in pipelines.  Are portable.  And are very convenient.  Planes and trains (as well as ships, busses and cars) can carry them.  Allowing them to travel great distances.  Something currently no renewable energy can do.  And doing without them would put an end to air travel.  Greatly increase the cost of rail transport (by electrifying ALL our tracks).  Or simply abandoning track we don’t electrify.  Making those far distant cities ever more distant.  And our traveling options far more limited than they were in the 1920s.  Turning the hands of time back about a hundred years.  Only we’ll have less.  And life will be less enjoyable.

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