Update: China is building pyramids. Sort of. Well, they're tall and pointy. The concept is similar.

You hated my idea of building canals all across America. And you don't trust the company that claims to harvest usable energy from the atmosphere. But you'll love my pyramid idea.

Imagine an enormous pyramid in the middle of a desert, miles wide and reaching miles into the sky. The purpose of the pyramid is energy production. And it does so in a variety of ways.

For starters, the inner core of the pyramid is hollow from the ground to the sky. Air enters through holes in the base and is drawn up through the hollow center because warm air rises. That gives you enough airflow to generate electricity.

If you put some scrubbers in the device I think there's a way to deal with pollution and climate change too. I saw some sort of tube-to-the-sky concept that was supposed to do that but I'm too lazy to search for the link. So let's say we fix climate change with our pyramid as a bonus. Perhaps that requires a separate hollow tube in the same pyramid.

We'd also cover the sunny sides of the pyramid with motorized mirrors to reflect sun down to generate solar-steam power on the ground. I think that's more economical than using photovoltaic cells but maybe not.

If it's possible to collect ions from the air in useful quantities (which most of you doubt) then we know there is a higher concentration at high altitudes. So perhaps someday we have ion antennas near the top of the pyramid too.

And let's not forget the temperature differential between the desert floor and the top of the pyramid. That difference could power Stirling generators.

And I would expect lots of natural wind a few miles up, so maybe we can have windmill-type generators on whichever side of the pyramid gets the least sun.

If your desert is within pipeline access to the ocean, I think that turning salt water into steam gets you desalinization. I would think you could make fresh water with the byproduct of your solar steam generator.

None of this works if building the pyramid is too expensive. So I wonder how hard it is to fashion suitably strong bricks out of sand. If it's only a case of heating the sand until it becomes hard as glass, all we need is giant magnifying glasses aimed at our brick-making oven on site.

We'd need robot laborers, and lots of them. Their job would be moving and placing each brick of the pyramid, which isn't terribly complicated work. That seems feasible with current technology.

To power the robots, you need to start your project by first building a solar power plant on the desert floor. That too would be the type that concentrates the sun to create steam power. And the solar power plant wouldn't go to waste because if the first pyramid works, you can keep building more nearby and power the robots continuously. When you're done building pyramids, the power plant connects to the grid.

When aliens helped the early Egyptians build the original pyramids perhaps they were leaving a clue for future generations. That conversation probably went like this:

Alien: We need to tell future generations of humans about pyramids. It will save them.

Egyptian: I can write a message on a wall.

Alien: I've seen your hieroglyphics. They're shit. Look at that one. (Points at wall.) I can't tell if that guy is winning a war or trying to date his ox.

Egyptian: I just realized you guys are made of meat. And if I'm not mistaken, you're boneless.

And that's why the pyramids exist but there is no evidence of aliens.


Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com

Did you buy a graduation gift yet? Don't forget this book.




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May 29, 2014
Here's cheap, strong building blocks made out of sand. http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/01/19/3538601/nc-startup-develops-a-way-to-turn.html
Now if you only knew somewhere to find a lot of sand... in a desert...
That's going to be tough.
May 29, 2014
Are you using the trick where you present terrible ideas first to break down our standards of what constitutes a good idea? It sure seems that way.

But I actually think this a promising idea - if you were to use a cone, rather than a pyramid.

The trick to making this more than just another solar updraft tower would be the possibility of creating a stable permanent vortex powered by solar energy. A hurricane in a jar. Done right you would essentially be creating a giant, sun-powered Carnot heat engine with enough momentum that you can extract power from it even at night. You would not be able to live in it, but you could use it to extract moisture from the air, and provide a permanent wind-test zone for cars and airplanes.
May 29, 2014
[...The hot air from the sun is directed into the balloon, which makes it rise to the top of the chimney. Then the air is released and the balloon falls back down the chimney, with the fan rotors turning because of the airflow of the fall....Scott]

Except for the "air is released" part, that almost reminds me of a giant Sterling engine.

Here's another idea: I wonder if a giant Foucault pendulum could be harnessed to ONLY pull out the rotational energy. The Earth's rotation would slow a tiny, tiny bit. However, this extra length of the Earth's day could be converted to free snooze button presses with zero impact on society.

+1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 29, 2014
Even better (and I know you're familiar with it since I learned about it right here on your own blog years ago) - build a solar collection tower surrounded by a greenhouse. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_updraft_tower

Next, park a cheapatopia around that so you've got plenty of people to enjoy the free energy, work the greenhouse-enclosed farm, and start construction on the next self-sustaining community a few miles over.

You get electricity from the sun, food from the greenhouse, water from condensation collectors at the top of the tower, building materials from clearing the land to build the tower, and human capital available for every other amenity you need in order to have a truly awesome city to live in. And it's not just self-sustaining mind, but actually exporting surplus food and electricity in order to subsidize other expenses necessary to run the place.

And sure, I imagine you could send water from the collectors at the top down through a water-slide that started at wherever point down the tower that a sufficient flow of water could be sustained.
May 29, 2014
A sky-high, mirrored pyramid is certainly a sexy idea, but drones are sexy too. For the life of me, I can't figure out the appeal of building massively tall structures simply to guide convection air from the ground to the clouds. Every puffy cloud you see has an invisible column of air feeding up to it, entirely unaided by any concrete superstructure.

Drones of a mini-sailplane size could circle like eagles in those columns of air, and once they got to cloudbase, could extend wind-harvesting propellers before diving to charge their internal batteries.

At night these drones could roost like bats on power lines which would milk them of their excess power. Tesla cars in need of a recharge could summon several drones to dive down and swap batteries without even stopping. Say you were out camping and your lantern battery was about to die. Automatically, a digital SOS would bring in a drone to swap out your battery.

These drones could be engineered to self-replicate in mineral-rich areas like Utah or Afghanistan, and from there they'd migrate around the world, taking advantage of weather patterns and solar activity.

Like the vast flocks of passenger pigeons in the 19th century, they might darken the sky as they moved from the desert to the city in their daily cycles. Poorer folks in rural areas could use shotguns to harvest batteries from the sky, to power their milking machines or !$%*!$%*!$%*!$%*!$%*!$%* these drones might evolve shotgun-evading strategies, or begin to raid coal-fired power plants in Mexico, but these are slow-moving issues that would work themselves out.

[Okay, that made me laugh. But I think you just invented a new power plant concept. Imagine a chimney that has a hot air balloon with a fan/generator on the bottom. The hot air from the sun is directed into the balloon, which makes it rise to the top of the chimney. Then the air is released and the balloon falls back down the chimney, with the fan rotors turning because of the airflow of the fall. That charges a capacitor that releases its energy at the ground. Repeat. -- Scott]

May 29, 2014
And don't forget - you've got a rising column of air in a tube - perfect for skydivers (while we're seeing this thing as a themepark).
May 29, 2014
Why a pyramid? A chimney would be cheaper to build, take up less space, and generate more updraft -- from, you know, the chimney effect. A pyramid is a more stable form, but that's not really an issue with modern construction techniques.

All of the other uses could happen on a chimney as well, including the water slide, which would actually be much more exciting, as you whipped around a much tighter spiral.
May 29, 2014
Here's the rub on this, as with many of your ideas - the first sentence of your tenth paragraph, to wit: "None of this works if building the pyramid is too expensive."

Not only does it not work if building the pyramid is too expensive, it also doesn't work if the cost of generating the electricity is too expensive.

Also, you're trying to solve a problem that doesn't need solving. There are wonderful, economical ways to generate electricity available today. Coal gasification and nuclear being two of the most economical, with the least impact on the environment.

Here in California, we have dueling environmentalists in a steel-cage death match over the Altamont Pass wind farm. For those of you fortunate enough not to live in our state, here is what's going on, in brief.

The windmills are killing birds. They're also very expensive to maintain. But the global warming zealots love them. So now we've got bird-loving environmentalists battling global warming environmentalists. I just wish they'd put the battle on pay-per-view.

The result is that the current small turbines are slowly (and expensively) being replaced by bigger ones that they hope won't kill as many birds. Plus $2.5 million being paid for "raptor habitat restoration." Wish I could get in on some of that money.

And it still produces very little, but extremely expensive, electricity.

So while I admire your creativity, I think your efforts are misplaced. We need common sense in energy policy, not pie-in-the-sky ideas that cost enormous amounts of money and end up on the trash heap of Solyndra-like history.
May 29, 2014
Could you get the same effect by modifying an existing mountain instead of constructing a pyramid from the ground up?

Bore tunnels from top to bottom for the updraft tower. Sprinkle on some wind and solar tech. You could even have your waterslide.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
May 29, 2014
Not sure why you want to make the walls from sand, most deserts have a lot of regular rock (granite mostly I think) which would be just fine for pyramid construction.
If you did this in death valley, it could double as an emergency escape location if the ocean ever made it into the depression, and you would be able to power a seawater feed from the ocean using just gravity power-heck, given the altitude differencial, you would be able to use that feed to generate additional power, and you could use it at night for a more even power flow. Then you pump the fresh water you have generated uphill to southern California during the day when you have plenty of power.
Actually, even if the power generation was zero, if you used this for a massive desalinization plant that didn't cost huge amounts of money for power, it would be worth it for S Cali.
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
May 29, 2014
It's becoming increasingly obvious why you studied economics instead of engineering. :)

This stuff is fun to think about though, keep it up.
May 29, 2014
I summon the super-power of XKCD's "What if" column: Randall Munroe can take this plan and make it even more awesome. Or, he can make fun graphics that show why/why not on the feasibility. I wonder if he reads Dilbert?
May 29, 2014
The idea was to release small amounts of SO2, not CO2, at high altitude. The SO2 droplets are highly reflective and persist for months, so you could dial the Earth's albedo up or down as needed to actively regulate surface temperature in spite of greenhouse gases.
May 29, 2014
BTW, if you want crazy crackpot projects building things that are huge and reach far in the sky, you're gonna have a tough time trying to top The Berg in Berlin:


Something like that might actually top the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System as the largest public works project in the history of mankind ($465.97 billion in 2011 dollars). :)
May 29, 2014
The base idea of what you describe is a "solar updraft tower".

There was a big bugaboo about them in the 1980's. I recall reading (in Popular Mechanics) back in 1985 or so that Australia was trying to build one that was over 1km tall, but it never happened. However, it appears China built a relatively small-scale (50 meters, 0.2 megawatt) one in 2010, and was working on a 200m/27.5MW version that apparently ran afoul of a nearby airport and was blocked (which smells a little fishy to me, but whatever).


Logically it makes sense that China would be on the forefront of this. They have a screaming need for cleaner energy thanks to their overdependance on coal and the resulting air pollution problems...and they have the Gobi Desert. I suspect their biggest problem is that there's a lot of money and power in coal, and those people (both in and out of the government...a distinction that's blurred in China) are no doubt working hard to block clean energy at every turn to protect their own little empires.

Overall solar chimneys are perfectly feasible but there's arguably better ways to do solar power. Mostly because building a chimney tall enough to generate enough power is do-able but is a major up-front expense, and these chimneys rely on hot, desert-like areas for conditions optimum for power generation. Many countries, including the USA, have such areas within their borders...but getting the power FROM those areas, TO the population centers is a major issue for the country's aging, creaky, power grid.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
May 29, 2014
I like your optimism in mankind and your fertile imagination. One part of your scheme, the hot air rising has been developed in Spain and now the USA http://www.enviromission.com.au/EVM/content/home.html

There are some problems with your idea though. The way you envision it, your pyramid would have to be very tall. Much higher than any of our skyscrapers. I doubt humanity has the willpower for that kind of effort.

The height assumes a large base. Where would we find a place like that in the USA? Perhaps we could put it on that Andes plateau with the large pictographs.

In my mind the desalinization and de-carbonization are secondary to the production of power. The solar tower takes solar to a new level because it works on temperature difference which is available for more hours than the sun itself.

And finally, a viable theory of why we find no alien remains, brilliant!

[We have plenty of desert space in the USA. Without doing the math, four square miles of desert gets you a pyramid a few miles high. Here's a list of deserts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_North_American_deserts -- Scott]
May 29, 2014
It's easy to dream up huge, impressive, pie-in-the sky ideas. The hard part is making them real.

(and not letting them distract you from trying to build more practical solutions to problems)

[You sound like you'd be a lot of fun at parties. -- Scott]
May 29, 2014
Scott, did you tape ping pong balls to yours eyes and stare at a red light while listening to radio static again?
May 29, 2014
if we replace the robots with people we can get 100% employment (the Mk1 pyramids were built with paid labour ! )

Add a deep well to increase the effect of the sterling engine(s) ..
I seem to remember the plan to stop global warming involved releasing co2 at high altitudes (also cant be bothered to google it )

Add a sand ski resort / fast food / casino to the foot of the pyramid as well to increase revenue

[The pyramid could have the world's longest water slide wrapping around it like the stripes of a candy cane, thus making it a tourist destination. Hike to the top and slide down. But the slide needs to be enclosed like a tube to keep the water from evaporating too quickly. The water would come from the steam that is pumped to the top of the pyramid for cooling. -- Scott]
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