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The current preferred means of travel from New York to London or Paris is the jet plane. Which is a shame, because:

  1. It is poorly designed. The fact that "it is the best we can do" is no excuse. It's not a proper means of transportation: it's a flying gas tank. Literally. There's fuel in the damn wings, even. Most of the energy the burning of this fuel generates is spent on carrying the plane itself, and its fuel. It is said that a car (another lousy design) expends about 99% of its energy on carrying itself, and about 1% on carrying the passenger. I don't know if the jet airplane is better or worse, but surely it's in the same category of moronic guzzlers. Note that the design of the jet has not changed significantly in fifty years. This is, like, I don't know, medieval.

  2. To keep the airline industry afloat, so to speak, thousands upon thousands of planes need to take off every day and travel at speeds that increase their fuel consumption by something like 50%. In order to do this, millions of people are coaxed, coerced, or bribed into traveling to destinations they have no particular desire to visit, or, in fact, into traveling at all. Do you have to attend that conference? We do have videophones, you know. However, the airlines contend that a decrease in volume would drive them all bankrupt, and commercial aviation would promptly cease to exist. This is true to some extent - with the fleet they have today.

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I have seen tourists in Times Square "taking pictures" of computerized billboards. I have seen tourists under the Arc of Triumph in Paris "taking pictures" of each other against the background of the memorial fire. It is not obvious to me that they need to be there. The one thing that would get them to curb their tourist appetites would be a sharp decrease in their comfort level.

Thus my question is: air or water? Should engineers bend their energies on improving air travel or sea travel?

Those fabled clippers, they could cross the ocean in about twelve days. Each time it was a very uncomfortable trip, replete with danger. Could it be made more comfortable with today's technologies and know-how?

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Or should we take a closer look at airships and see where that leads us?

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  • Closely related, almost a duplicate: sustainability.stackexchange.com/q/829/106 – gerrit Dec 15 '15 at 11:20
  • You may want to read up on Electric aircraft. – gerrit Dec 15 '15 at 11:21
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    As it stands now, I find your question rather broad and subjective. It would fit better if you focus your question on one objectively answerable aspect. – gerrit Dec 15 '15 at 11:22
  • @gerrit: Hardly. The one you're linking is an inquiry about the state of things now. I'm curious about what we should be doing to make the crossing sustainable. As you may have noticed, I've mentioned upgraded and modernized tall ships and airships. – Ricky Dec 15 '15 at 11:26
  • I do not consider it a duplicate. Indeed, I'm asking about the present, you're asking about the future, we're both asking about the sustainability of transatlantic crossings, so I consider them quite closely related. When the future is here, they will become duplicates ;-) – gerrit Dec 15 '15 at 11:27
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Air or water? Should engineers bend their energies on improving air travel or sea travel?

Air. Regardless of sustainability, people who are used to hypermobility will not easily accept that mobility to be taken away.

There is work going on on electric aircraft. Current batteries have insufficient energy density, but energy density is increasing rapidly. I don't know if we are anywhere near theoretical limits — you might ask here or on another Stack. Wikipedia quotes Elon Musk saying once batteries are capable of producing 400 Watt-hours per kilogram, with a Power-to-weight ratio of between 0.7-0.8, then an electrical transcontinental aircraft becomes “compelling”

Which then reduces the aviation question to an electricity production question. We already know how to do that sustainably. Then there is the full life cycle of the batteries itself, which has non-zero impact.

Is a transatlantic voyage across the Atlantic possible with absolutely zero impact? No.

Is a transatlantic voyage across the Atlantic (in less than 12 hours) theoretically possible with impact that is orders of magnitude lower than now? Currently, no. In the future, perhaps.

(I wonder how long an aircraft could fly powered by an RTG.)

  • Good answer, actually. I only find one serious fault with it: I don't remember any big protests when the Concordes were grounded. Folks that used to spend 3.5 hours in the air accepted the doubling of their travel time without so much as a peep. Necessity is a tough mistress. – Ricky Dec 15 '15 at 11:31
  • @Ricky Perhaps instant death is a more compelling necessity than climate change that is more of a problem for future generations far away than current generations in the rich areas of the world. – gerrit Dec 15 '15 at 11:33
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    I can easy answer your question on the RTG. The answer is the same in every unit. RTGs have wonderful energy densities, how abysmal power densities. The USAF once tried to build a fission plane, and found the power density of a direct cycle nuclear (which is much more efficient than an RTG, since a nuclear reactor is also an RTG) jet much too low. – Aron Dec 15 '15 at 12:27
  • @Ricky I don't think enough people every used Concorde to result in "mass protests" - the 3.5 hour crossing was only ever available to the very wealthy! – Flyto Dec 15 '15 at 17:31
  • @gerrit: There's a thought. However, the rich "areas" are populated by humans, and humans don't really differ from one another all that much, no matter how much or how little they make a year, nor how much land they do or do not own. It is amazing how quickly humans get accustomed to anything, good or bad. Climate change may even reverse itself if this keeps up: conventional sweet crude did peak about a decade ago, and the annual increase in the world's oil production is due to other, far more expensive types of oil that are getting less economically viable by the minute. – Ricky Dec 16 '15 at 3:13

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