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Posted: January 24, 2008
Coming to a city near you in 2108: Algae towers and nanotubes
(Nanowerk News) In 100 years, San Francisco will have robotic buses and subways, buildings will generate their own power through the sun and wind, and an underground network of carbon nanotubes will store and provide hydrogen power.
These were some of the ideas submitted by eight competitors as part of the " City of the Future" contest, hosted ironically by the History Channel, in the Ferry Building. But while the architects were asked to design the city in 2108, many of their sci-fi visions are seemingly closer at hand than 100 years into the future.
Some of the suppositions are rather frightening and they are much debated whether or not they will come to pass. Those include the need to make room for a population that has doubled and a loss of low-lying areas along the San Francisco Bay due to rising sea levels
Many of the eight challengers had common ideas: San Francisco would have no or very few cars, vehicles will be fueled by alternate energy sources such as hydrogen, and harvesting the city's famous fog was used by several firms as a supplemental water source. Some ideas, including some quirky ones, came from the use of nanotechnology - the science of building new materials at the atomic or molecular scale.
The winners of the Sunday competition, IwamotoScott Architecture, designed a network beneath the city, with similar principles of computer networks such as the Internet, that is distributed and lacking one central power station or hub. The network would be made of carbon nanotubes, which could store hydrogen power. Cars could be plugged into walls to recharge.
Does this sound too far-fetched? Scientists at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory have done experiments showing that carbon nanotubes, which are 50,000 times narrower than a human hair, can be a promising material for storing hydrogen safely, efficiently and compactly.
"Even though it's very visionary, we didn't want to come off as crackers," said Lisa Iwamoto, a partner in the firm. "We did a lot of research." The architects did not include any kind of estimates on the cost of such a massive underground network, which would probably be impossible to gauge at this stage anyway, nor would they venture a guess on whether their ideas were feasible much sooner than 2108.
Solar power is a given
Of course, solar power, the most available technology right now, was a huge part of every vision a given for the future.
"The technology is evolving as we speak," said Peter Pfau, a principal of Pfau Architects, also of San Francisco. "In Israel, almost every house has solar panels ... In almost every building we are designing in our real practice, if we are not putting in solar, we are putting in an infrastructure so solar can be put in place in the future."
That should be good news for the increasing number solar startups in Silicon Valley, and the public companies that are making big bets on solar, including Applied Materials (AMAT), First Solar (FSLR), and Sun Power(SPWR). In perhaps another validation of solar's potential, on Tuesday, during the stock market's big tumble, the already high-flying solar stocks gained after an analyst report declared that the sale of solar panels would not be hurt in an economic downturn. But the volatile solar shares tanked on Wednesday in the bigger technology bloodbath.
Robots drive the buses and subways
Other technologies incorporated by the architects that may be close at hand include robotics.
Pfau, who has a Roomba vacuum cleaner from iRobot (IRBT) at home, is a bit of a geek as well as a futurist. In the firm's designs, robotic taxis and transit systems travel the streets instead of cars and 7,000 acres of reclaimed city streets serve as walking and biking pathways, recreation zones and urban farming. Underground tunnels would be used to transport goods for consumers and businesses between stations, again via robots. Pfau Architects won a runner up award from IBM (IBM) for innovation in technology
Many in the tech business see robotics as an increasingly important in the future. Companies like iRobot are working to bring robotics to consumers and automate menial human tasks, such as their newest product to clean roof gutters, the Looj. Microsoft (MSFT) sees a big future in robotics, and has created its own Robotics Studio Software, to help fuel further software development, to create new applications, of course, in Windows.
Another element of the future forecast by these designers is urban farming. Fougeron Architecture displayed a concept where new towers are built or the city's unused skyscrapers are dedicated to growing food. The firm won an extraordinary design award.
Anne Fougeron, principal, noted that the agricultural towers envisioned by her firm were inspired in part by hydroponic farms using artificial light, in downtown Tokyo. In one experiment, over 100 crops were grown mostly in water in the basement of a skyscraper in Tokyo, testing the feasibility of urban farming and training the jobless in new skills.
Probably the most bizarre concept was an element of the winning IwamotoScott project: algae towers. These, too, were based on existing real research. Scientists at the University of California's Berkeley campus and elsewhere have shown that algae and sunshine produces small amounts of hydrogen. The firm's algae towers, designed as slender white towers with green patches, would serve as self-sustaining housing, interlaced with hydrogen production.
While some these concepts may sound over the top, most were based on science and technology in research at universities and companies. I don't want to live in an algae tower, and I hope that doesn't happen in my lifetime. But others ideas, such as widespread solar power, are easy to envision.