My True Love Gave to Me…

[Image: U.S. Army soldiers “provide security while clearing an underground complex during dense urban environment training,” photo by Captain Scott Kuhn.]

I had missed this “urban warfare Christmas wish list” posted back in 2018, complete with specific but speculative tools for intra-architectural combat. Who doesn’t think about urban warfare on Christmas?

The list suggests developing a military-grade “industrial foam thrower” (perhaps suggesting a future black-market for used rave equipment). “I want an industrial foam-throwing gun,” John Spencer writes, “that will seal each opening as I find and move past them. Foam is already used to lift concrete house foundations, streets, and sidewalks in the private sector. Adapting this tool to the needs of the urban warrior would pay huge dividends.”

Spencer’s wish list continues: “I would want a mining robot that could drill or punch holes in walls in advance of my movements. The robot would have the software, data, and sensing capability to know where to go through walls most easily and with the least amount of damage.”

In fact, this gives me the perfect excuse to post something I’ve had bookmarked for years: remote controlled demolition robots. Husqvarna, for example, makes “a small and very versatile demolition robot that can be transported inside a van.” Surely, a militarized line of portable, remotely controlled demolition robots is just one purchase-order away from becoming reality.

The list continues. Spencer calls for wheeled barriers, allowing “concrete walls to roll directly off of a flatbed truck into position”; giant, grenade-launcher-deployed curtains for blocking entire streets and buildings from view (what he has elsewhere referred to as “an invisibility kit for urban combat”); and, among other things, military-grade jumper cables for tapping into the batteries of ruined cars left junked out on the street in order to power a unit’s portable electronic gear.

[Image: From Tenet, courtesy Warner Brothers.]

Spencer also hosts a podcast called the “Urban Warfare Project,” one episode of which adds another, somewhat Tenet-like piece of gear to this list: air tanks for prolonged missions in underground spaces. (In Christopher Nolan’s recent film, Tenet, the characters need to wear air tanks so that they can breathe while moving back in time.)

In any case, as I write in A Burglar’s Guide to the City, one of the reasons for studying these sorts of tools—whether they are military or criminal, whether they are used by firefighters or by demolition crews—is to understand both how works of architecture are internally connected and how those same structures can be dismantled.

Indeed, nearly every tool on Spencer’s list would also be of use for a sufficiently ambitious burglary crew—firing curtains across the street to hide entry and exit points, using demolition machines to break into vaults—but whether you pay attention to this stuff purely as an academic exercise or as a spur toward designing works of architecture that can resist, confuse, or baffle such equipment is up to you.

Check out the rest of Spencer’s list over at the Modern War Institute.

(Very vaguely related: Nakatomi Space.)

Shining Path

One of many things that we’ll be looking at tonight in the Blackout seminar that I’ve been teaching over at Pratt in Brooklyn is organically generated electricity—things like virus batteries, biogeobatteries, sediment batteries, and more.

[Image: From Christopher Nolan’s film The Prestige (2006)].

By way of getting there, though, we’ll be taking a very brief look at Christopher Nolan’s under-rated film The Prestige—specifically the scene in which we see a hillside covered in giant incandescent light bulbs, none of which appear to be plugged into anything but soil and all of which are powered wirelessly by a generator located over 12 miles away.

The geological form of the mountain plateau becomes a shining grid framing our two featured characters.

[Image: From Christopher Nolan’s film The Prestige (2006)].

Although The Prestige does not suggest that this is what’s happening in this scene, what if the soil itself was powering these light bulbs? What if soil could be turned into a landscape-scale, distributed electrical device?

Awesomely, as Nature reported just two months ago, there is growing evidence to back up “a suggestion within the geophysics and microbiology communities that bacteria can grow tiny ‘wires’ and hook up to form a biogeobattery—a giant natural battery that generates electrical currents.”

[Image: From Popular Science].

Then Popular Science picked up on the story:

Scientists have known that bacteria can create electricity when mixed with mud and seawater, and have even built microbial fuel cells around the little buggers. Now they have begun figuring out just how bacteria create electrical networks that serve as long-distance communication, at least on the microbial scale—the distances ranged up to 2 centimeters. Yet those few centimeters equal roughly 20,000 times the body size of individual bacteria.

Imagining soil itself—the ground all around us—as a giant electrical transmission network is astonishing. And, again, while there is no mention of anything like biogeobatteries and their ilk in The Prestige, the very idea that perhaps someday we could plug light bulbs directly into the soil—an organic battery coextensive with the living surface of the earth—amazes me.

[Images: From The Prestige (2006)].

And biogeobatteries are not even the only option here; there are also virus batteries.

MIT reported back in 2006 that a team of researchers had “harnessed the construction talents of tiny viruses to build ultra-small ‘nanowire’ structures for use in very thin lithium-ion batteries. By manipulating a few genes inside these viruses, the team was able to coax the organisms to grow and self-assemble into a functional electronic device.” The resulting virus batteries are tiny, but they could vary in scale “from the size of a grain of rice up to the size of existing hearing aid batteries.”

The future design possibilities are bewildering. Could deposits of virus-impregnated soil be used as electricity-storage devices in rural, off-the-grid areas?

[Image: From Nature].

After all, bacteria might already be “wiring up the soil,” Nature suggested three years ago. Indeed, “bacteria can sprout webs of electrical wiring that transform the soil into a geological battery,” meaning that “the earth beneath our feet might act as a gigantic circuit built by microbes to power their metabolic systems.” And you can build a soil battery yourself:

The researchers filled plastic columns with wet sand infiltrated with a nutrient compound (lactate), and allowed S. oneidensis to grow in this “fake soil.” Only the top of the column was in contact with air. Electrodes inserted at various heights up the columns revealed that, after about ten days, electrical charge was coursing up the column… threaded by a web of filaments between the bacterial cells.

I’m reminded here of the work of Philip Beesley, which often uses self-fertilizing yeast-packs, gels, and seeds to create living geotextiles. In fact, a Beesley Battery doesn’t seem at all very off: a living mat woven through the soil, generating and storing electricity based on pre-existing bacterial activity in the ground.

You infect the soil with a genetically-modified virus patented by MIT and electrical currents start to flow…

[Image: From Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006)].

Perhaps someday, then, we could simply show up somewhere, in the middle of the night, surrounded by pine forests and hills, and just crouch down, push a light bulb two or three inches into the earth—

[Image: From The Prestige (2006)].

—and watch as everything around us starts to glow.