What’s the Hype About Hyperloop?


Hyperloop transportation technologies

Is billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s proposal a revolution in future transport or just a mere ‘pipe’ dream?

What can you do in 30 minutes? Cook dinner, watch a TV programme, go for a jog? Maybe even travel at a supersonic 800mph from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes. 45 minutes quicker than any passenger flight. According to billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, Hyperloop will do just that. Is it a landmark step in bringing supersonic transport back to the general public? Where the majestic Concorde failed in price, efficiency and safety, Hyperloop hopes to succeed.

Hyperloop consists of two sets of pipes or tubes, one for each direction of travel, that contain less air (at a lower pressure) then the surrounding atmosphere. Within each pipe are pressurised capsules, similar to that inside an airplane, which carry passengers and move within the tube.

How the capsules are moved and suspended are where things get interesting. The capsules float in exactly the same way as an air hockey puck does, utilising a cushion of air underneath and around them. The capsules thankfully don’t bounce off walls like the unpredictable pucks and there are no points here for frustrating your mates with a lucky shot.

Removing the need for a rail or wheels to support the capsules means there is less friction between the capsule and the surrounding pipe. When travelling at 800 mph, high friction would generate a lot of heat, potentially damaging important components as well as massively slowing down the capsules.

So the capsule is floating suspended on a cushion of air, but how does it move forwards and move forwards so fast? The answer lies in magnets. There is already research being done into using magnets for a version of high speed rail called Maglev. The principal difference is that Hyperloop is only using magnets to accelerate and decelerate the capsules. Maglev uses magnets for both moving and suspending the train- a more expensive and cumbersome technique.

The final and most technical piece to Hyperloop is a fan mounted on the front of the capsule. This is to overcome “the Kantrowitz limit”. This phenomenon is seen notably in an empty syringe where the pump’s edge is close to the surrounding chamber. As you push the pump down it must push the whole column of the air in the syringe. This is because the air cannot pass in the gap between the pump and the surrounding chamber. This is useful in a syringe because you want to push the entire contents out.

With Hyperloop it is a massive disadvantage as the speed of travel would mean massive amounts of forces would be required to “push” the air ahead of the capsule in the pipe. By mounting a fan on the front of the capsule the air can be “sucked” into the capsule, thus avoiding the need for a large force to push the air in the pipes forward. In a neat twist of innovation, this same air could then be used to suspend the capsule to achieve an effect similar to the air hockey puck mentioned earlier.

By using the fan, magnetic attraction and repulsion for acceleration, a low pressure environment in the pipes with minimum air resistance and air cushioning of the capsules; the supersonic speeds required for such short travel times can be achieved.

It has been suggested that the pipes could be built above ground (similar to a monorail as featured in “The Simpsons”). This also means solar panels along the length of the piping could be utilised to power Hyperloop. According to reports, solar panels stretching the length of the top surface would be more than able to supply power for Hyperloop!

According to the figures published by the boffins at SpaceX and Tesla, a Hyperloop system from San Francisco to L.A. would cost in the region of $6 Billion (£4 Billion). This greatly compares to the costs for a proposed high speed rail network in California which are thought to total upwards of $70 Billion (£47 Billion). Although it is hard to put a price on new, undeveloped technologies, a potential saving of at least £40 Billion represents more than back pocket change.

What’s stopping it being built right now?

It’s clear to see that in terms of cost and speed, the Hyperloop beats other forms of ground-based transport and short haul flights. In a world where confidence in transport can be easily lost through crashes or terrorism, safety is a crucial aspect. Protecting the long pipes from earthquakes is a major challenge (particularly in California, as it lies on the San Andreas Fault). In addition to this, finding rights to build on land for the elevated “monorail” pipe design may prove problematic. Two notable issues arising from this are its potential to be regarded as a visual eyesore and the need to purchase new land for construction of a raised pipe system.

At a suggested $20 a ticket, Hyperloop seems like an almost ideal solution to finding an environmentally friendly and rapid method of transport.

As Musk’s other endeavours in space and automobiles rendered him too busy to pursue Hyperloop, he originally planned to allow other developers to take on the idea and make it reality. Although the argument for Hyperloop was and still is strong, this came to no avail since the report was released 2 years ago. Musk announced this year that they would develop a prototype scaled down test track in Texas to see if the technology is viable, marking the beginning of turning theory into reality.

Ever since the Wright’s brothers made their first fateful flight in 1901, humans have made the world a smaller place. Although Hyperloop may just be a pipe dream for now, it shows promise in making our world just that little bit smaller.

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