Professor touts underground pipeline system at international conference


Large metropolitan areas are increasingly running into congestion problems as increased amounts of freight travel into their ports and on their roads. One possible way to alleviate that problem is to create an underground pipeline system that can allow goods to move underground to their final location via an automated system, thus limiting traffic on the roads and in ports. Photo courtesy of Jim Noble.

Jim Noble recently traveled halfway around the world to present research results that addresses key sustainability issues in the smart cities domain through moving cargo flow underground.

The MU Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering professor and his former graduate student, Gaohao Luo of the Norfolk Southern Corporation, presented “Underground Freight Pipeline System Logistic Network Design” at the INFORMS Transportation Science and Logistics Society Workshop in January in Hong Kong.

Large metropolitan areas are increasingly running into congestion problems as increased amounts of freight travel into their ports and on their roads. One possible way to alleviate that problem is to create an underground pipeline system that can allow goods to move underground to their final location via an automated system, thus limiting traffic on the roads and in ports.

“There comes a point where you reach a congestion crisis, and combined with the environmental impact, you have to do something radically different,” Noble said.

The overall idea isn’t new. Former Mizzou Engineering faculty member Henry Liu was a pioneer in the 1990’s in pipeline transportation and Noble partnered with him to address a range of underground transportation issues. Noble is continuing the research to help make Liu’s underground transportation dream a reality. Most of the current research in the domain has addressed structural technology issues. This has left the opportunity for Noble’s group within the Center for Excellence in Logistics and Distribution (CELDi) to address operational issues.

What Noble and Luo did was to create an optimal approach for underground network design that minimizes four cost components: tunnel construction, station construction, transportation and operations. They developed a model and solution approach that maximizes network connectivity while minimizing overall cost.

“We can create underground transportation systems that range in load size from cargo containers down to individual pallets. At the pallet size it would be possible to have bidirectional pipelines,” Noble said. “Allowing the whole cargo system to fit into 12-foot round tunnel.”

Noble also had the opportunity to discuss the specific issue of urban freight congestion with a worldwide group of colleagues and tour the Port of Hong Kong, all while representing Mizzou Engineering’s high-quality research to an international conference.

“There was a large contingent of researchers from China that had a lot of questions about our work. Realistically, China is the most likely place in the near future to implement underground transportation. They have a lot of new cities that are being built in a highly planned manner,” Noble said. “However, given the need for smarter and sustainable cities, the motivation for underground cargo will only increase all over the world.”



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