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The Food Infrastructure Is a Series of Tubes

Or should be. Why do we waste so much fuel hauling food in tractor-trailers (or “lorries”), wonders a UK-based group? Foodtubes wants to shuttle food around in tubes underground. Will you give it $20 million to try out the idea?

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What if we transported food more like we shuttle around data, water, and gas? Why waste money and energy hauling food in tractor-trailers, when we could shuttle around packets underground through a series of tubes? (Mmm, tubesteak.) That bizarre notion is the vision of the UK-based Foodtubes Project, a loose collective of thinkers from the worlds of academia, business, law, and engineering.

The idea is fantastically strange, but a couple of intelligent people are taking it seriously, reports eWeek Europe. Foodtubes is casting about for something on the order of $20 million in order to build a test circuit. With the help of a physics professor from Oxford, Foodtubes ditched an original pneumatic tubes idea in favor of one powered by linear induction motors controlled by computers. The new idea allows “open architecture,” Foodtubes CEO Noel Hodson tells Fast Company. “Every Foodtubes circuit will link to every other like the Internet, without valves, airlocks, or any human intervention.”

Best of all, the project could enable the sudden sampling of foreign delicacies. “In the long term, we could see an ostrich slaughtered in Cape Town, and delivered in Edinburgh,” envisions Hodson, talking recently to eWeek Europe. And why stop at food? Hodson points to a study that he says shows Foodtubes could move quarry-stone more efficiently than trucks or rail. “Foodtubes will carry any goods smaller than 1 meter (1 yard) diameter,” he writes in an email

Hodson trots out a lot of wonderful statistics–$125 million revenue a year! 8% reduction of CO2! billions of gallons of oil saved!–but despite the recent flurry of press, Hodson tells Fast Company the project remains in the “conceptual” stage. In fact, Foodtubes own materials online bespeak a certain squeamishness about the prospect of getting the job done. See slide 33 of this PowerPoint presentation (PPT) from 2008, for instance, which relays the following anecdote.

“Of course!…It’s a no-brainer. When can we buy in?” a pair of high-powered Wall Street types reportedly told the group, after listening to their presentation for all of 70 seconds.

There followed “minutes of silence,” until finally one of the nervous Foodtubers piped up, “We just hope we can make it work.”

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Still, the group has made some progress. Transport for London allegedly “expressed an interest,” as did two oil companies. An “international supermarket” has signed an agreement, Hodson tells me. And the group, whose scientific component is let by the Oxford physicist F.W. Taylor, is increasingly confident of the technology underpinning the idea. “Foodtubes is not rocket science,” Hodson writes in an email (unless, of course, he was using “rocket” in terms of lettuce). “Prof Taylor is a rocket scientist–or more accurately,” Hodson continues, “he specialises in planetary atmospheric studies.”

“We can do it,” he says simply of the Foodtubes vision.

Let’s hope so. I, for one, could really go for some ostrich right about now. A physical “Internet of things” to match the digital one that’s been such a success seems like a great idea–but we’ll wait to see if Hodson’s lofty fundraising goals are met before we declare this anything more than a fun, utopian, and slightly loony idea.

[Image: Flickr user extranoise]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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