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Jeffrey Geary


Trick is, where are there ready to use canals to even implement this?

Kris De Decker


Here in Europe, there are quite some canals that have fallen into disuse, and some countries still make use of barge transport on a large scale. In the US, I don't know, I am afraid you will have to dig them first? As mentioned and pictured in the conclusion of the article, these can be very shallow waterways.

Jef Jelten


Fantastic article. Thank you so much for your work.

I have been looking at this issue for some time and firmly believe canal and river transport will be an ever more important part of our future.

One Idea I had was a electric Stern wheeler pontoon boat. When batteries run low you anchor out of the channel but still in the current. the water flows between the pontoons, turns the paddlewheel, and the electric motors become generators charging the batteries. The pontoons can be wide and very flat bottom so this design would have large load carrying ability.

This is most practicle on rivers but if widely used no canals it could be engineered to run up stream with no current, then all would tie off and current resumed for so many hours to charge the fleet.

Just a thought.

peter leaback


I think the major stumbling block is the capital costs. The speed of transport is at least 1/10th that of road haulage. To transport goods at the same rate as one truck, you need 10 barges (of equal capacity). It would be difficult to achieve a construction cost of a powered barge at 1/10th that of a truck.

Kris De Decker


Find more comments on the article over at The Oil Drum:

Mehul Kamdar


This is a very interesting article. I was with a company in Southern Illinois and whenever I drove to Calhoun County, I often had to drive along with my colleagues to St Louis and take the ferry across the Illinois or the Mississippi rivers depending upon which route we took. There were always a number of barges hauling cargo down to the Gulf for loading onto ocean freighters for shipment to other parts of the world. I do think that this system would be a very interesting way of powering barges up and downstream as speed does not matter when transporting corn in large quantities, for example, but cost does.

Sadly, the problem with Chinese "jumping" carp may not permit the canals connecting the Great Lakes to ever be opened in the future, though, or else, this would be an excellent system for transportation of goods between the US states and canadian provinces on the Great Lakes as well.

Andy Ballantyne


Information required on how to lift a barge from one level of lock to another. This canal would be far from any power supply.

Eric Wolfsbane


Of course, there's still the problem of canals freezing over during the winter.

Stewart MacLennan


Congratulations on this story. We are presently moored beside one of these old engines, now just a paainted decoration at the port in Toul France. We and I am sure many others in this region have little idea of how wdespread the use of various types of power were to moving freight on the waterways before the engine and propeller phase of today started. As I say, well done.
Stewart MacLennan



I live where there used to be log drives (where rivers were basically used as sewers for transporting logs downstream - the similarity to sewers extends to holding back water in dams to flush the logs over obstructions). On relatively unobstructed rivers, the logs could be bound into rafts. Nowadays all those logs get moved by truck but I wonder if log rafts could have been improved by something like the electric mule.

If the "mule" could also operate as a generator dragged along by the raft, then timber floating downstream could generate power for boats going upstream or for the general electric grid. Since floating rafts would only generate power if they go slower than the current, it would only work for cargo that was not time sensitive, but that might be OK for some kinds of raw materials, if there was some way of reducing labor costs for assembling and steering the rafts.



Very interesting topic. Thank you for the article. I found the nomenclature confusing. Continuity and consistency in terms would help.



"Zero emission'? Fat chance.

When are you going to realize, the electricity doesn't come from thin air! It has to be produced somehow, & in the U.S. & PRC, in the main, it is produced by burning coal.

That's hardly socially friendly, given the deaths of miners from digging it, let alone environmentally friendly, from the coal dust blowing off the train cars delivering it to the sulphur dioxide & acid rain & carbon dioxide from burning it.

Tell me again how it's "zero emission".



I suppose it is ironic that I am posting this as an idea for industrial logging after the article on coppicing came out, but it made me rethink my response from 6 years ago (November 13, 2014)

"Rafts" should probably be "bundles". If the bundles have lots of drag (when perpendicular to the river's flow), that is helpful because it extracts more energy from the river.
To avoid the expense of supporting cables above the river (and to allow more gentle curves), the cables (which would probably look more like rails) would be laid on the river bed and be anchored periodically to it. The rails and "mule" could be a waterproofed linear induction motor. There would be many details to work out (which parts of the route require the bundle to be parallel to the river to avoid snagging and which allow it to be perpendicular to increase drag, are reflectors enough to avoid collisions with boats? what kind of ramps are needed to get over rapids when water is low, is it worth making the upstream parts of the rail network removable to follow logging operations?...) but it would replace trucks that consume energy (and, as some of the heaviest trucks on the road around here, tear up roads) with something that generates electricity while carrying logs to sawmills that are still in large part sited near rivers and downstream of the forests that supply them.

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