September 18, 2019 | Grace Chen
Between scrolling newsfeeds on the Internet and hearing about Elon Musk’s latest works through the mass media, it’s likely the word “hyperloop” has crossed many device screens lately.
But what exactly is a hyperloop?
Dirk Ahlborn, Founder and CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technology (HyperloopTT) gave us the answer during his REVOLUTION 2019 keynote in March.
Fig. 1 - Render of the hyperloop passenger capsule
The hyperloop is an airplane-like capsule that carries people hovering inside a depressurized tube traveling just below the speed of sound. The air in the tube is removed to reduce resistance and the capsule levitates above rails rather than traveling on them. This creates an environment similar to that of airplanes in high altitudes where the air is thinner, allowing the airplane—or the hyperloop in this case—to travel faster with less energy.
Ahlborn says that this this technology will “transform transportation at the speed of sound.” Ahlborn further elaborates that the hyperloop is not the stuff of science fiction, and that the team at HyperloopTT—a worldwide ecosystem of over 800 intellectual problem solvers—has been actively building since 2013.
The system will be completely green and powered by sustainable solar, wind, and kinetic energy. The passenger capsule will be propelled by a passive levitation system, which consumes minimal energy while producing more energy than needed and giving the remainder back to the electrical grid.
To monitor speed, capsule integrity, and atmospheric conditions in real time, HyperloopTT invented Vibranium (not of Wakanda fame!)—a composite material that aims to transform the passenger experience and create a new benchmark in comfort and safety. The hyperloop is designed for departure every 40 seconds at a maximum speed of 1200km per hour with the capacity to move 164,000 passengers on a single line every day.
“With its speed and efficiency, the hyperloop will rewrite the rules of travel and mobility,” Ahlborn states. “It will redefine how we connect with each other. Distant friends will become neighbors, countries will become neighborhoods, and everyone in the world will grow closer together.”
A resident of Los Angeles, Ahlborn is no stranger to endless bumper-to-bumper traffic. “This is time that can better be spent being productive or with the people we care about,” Ahlborn says. “We often decide where we work based on where we live. In Los Angeles, we even decide who we date based on where we live—because if she lives on the other side of the city, it’s not going to work.”
Fig. 2 - Air pollution in Beijing, source: https://time.com/4167351/beijing-air-quality-pollution/)
After years of effort to combat pollution in Beijing, the Chinese capital is still dangerously smoggy on sunny days. While hyper-pollution is stereotypically thought of as a problem in developing countries such as China or India, pollution is, in reality, a pressing global issue. Ahlborn notes that, although the EU is not as noticeably polluted as China, citizens of the EU typically lose some 15 months of their lives due to pollution. While transportation represents only a fraction of global pollution, that fraction is alarming enough that governments globally are coming together to create regulations and solutions that push transportation to greener alternatives.
Fig. 3 - Logging wagon pulled on rail tracks by eight horses
Existing methods of mass public transport, namely the railway industry is, as Ahlborn calls it, a “dinosaur industry,” with little innovation in the sector in recent years. Most railroads today are built to international standards, with railroad tracks being 1.435 meters apart. This standard was decided in the 1800s, when horses were the engines behind rail carts.
“Think about it,” Ahlborn says, “It’s 2019 and we are building new infrastructure based on the butts of two horses. This is how much innovation has happened in the railroad industry.”
There are no existing rail or metro lines in the world that are profitable, and all rely on government subsidies. The Los Angeles metro makes $0.76 USD per passenger and subsidizes $2.50 USD with taxpayer money, though it could be argued that this is because people are sitting in traffic rather than taking the metro. However, the New York metro—one of the most used in the world—loses an average of $0.82 USD per passenger. This amounts to a staggering $2.2 USD billion annually. Meanwhile, Germany subsidizes their national rail network with over €22 billion EUR every year, and the list continues.
On the other hand, because the hyperloop consumes minimal energy while producing its own to sell back to the grid, it has low operational costs and can become profitable in a short amount of time. By approaching issues with new perspectives, innovation can change public transportation into something that makes economic sense.
Air-traffic is ever-growing and is expected to continue increasing in coming years. As a result, existing airports are overflowing, and new airports are being built. With airports typically located close to cities, this causes further crowding and air and noise pollution. The hyperloop will allow airports to be built larger and further away from cities. These mega-airports can be connected to other like terminals, with each mega-airport serving several cities.
The rise of e-commerce has created unforeseen growth in the demand for transport logistics. The hyperloop will rapidly speed up transport freights, creating further ease in on-demand economies wherein one central warehouse can serve an entire country. With the hyperloop, goods can reach places like Europe and North American from China in a matter of hours rather than weeks.
Fig. 4 - Render of a hyperloop station
The global population is continually increasing and migrating to cities where work is more abundant, resulting in megacities such as Beijing, Los Angeles, or Mumbai where overcrowding has led to the creation of satellite cities. For example, a house in a safe neighborhood of Los Angeles costs upward of $1 million USD, causing those who do not want to or cannot afford to live in the city center to be pushed to satellite cities, thereby forced to face long commutes and exacerbating traffic issues.
With the hyperloop, people will be able to live in one place and work in another. It would be possible to, for example, live in Portugal and work in the Netherlands. It would also be possible to create megacities and a high quality of life concurrently. The city centers of global metropolises will become easily accessible, with people being able to commute via the hyperloop from satellite cities, where they are able to own homes and raise families.
“After all, these are the things that matter to us,” Ahlborn says, “To be close to the people we love while still having the opportunities that come with working in major cities. Hyperloop can make this a reality.”
Fig. 5 - Tube to support low pressure environment that the hyperloop will travel within
HyperloopTT has been actively working on the hyperloop for the past five years. Ahlborn emphasizes, “Keep in mind that the moon landing only took 10 years from the moment John F. Kennedy said, ‘We’re going to the moon.’
“We’re capable of doing incredible things in a fairly short time,” Ahlborn continues. “People think the hyperloop is science fiction but it’s much closer to reality than one would think.”
Working with people who already have the knowledge
To build the hyperloop, HyperloopTT has assembled a team of over 800 engineers, creatives, and technologists with relevant knowledge and experience, and partnered with companies with decades of engineering and manufacturing experience in critical industries—tunnels, tubes, aerospace, aeronautics, vacuum pumps, pylons, and more.
The combined experience of these employees and partners allows Hyperloop to leverage decades of development, saving millions in research costs. This is why the system is already feasible and insurable according to Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance company.
Utilizing existing and creating new technologies
Fig. 8 - The hyperloop traveling through a tube
The hyperloop is being built using a combination of existing and new technologies, including vacuum systems, magnetic levitation, linear motor systems, automation, and renewable energy. Most technologies that the hyperloop needs to function already exist. HyperloopTT has been putting it together through creating partnerships with companies that have these technologies.
For example, pylon and tube technologies already exist, with hundreds of thousands of kilometers already built. Knowledge of how to create a vacuum inside a tube also already exists—the particular accelerator in Switzerland where the vacuum inside the tubes is 100,000 times harder to maintain than the partial vacuum needed for the hyperloop. More excitingly, the company responsible for the particle accelerator vacuum is part of the HyperloopTT team.
Testing and patenting new technologies
To build the hyperloop, HyperloopTT uses the next generation of passive magnetic levitation system called “inductrack,” where neodymium magnets in a haul-back array enable passive levitation over an unpowered but conductive track. This system was already been tested and validated on a full-scale track. Following that, HyperloopTT improved the technology and optimized it for a low-pressure environment for testing on the hyperloop prototype.
As capsules move through this low-pressure environment, very little energy is used due to reduced track forces. Considering the latest solar technology is already able to cover the full energy cost of the hyperloop, future technological advancement will only make energy consumption better and cheaper.
Beyond Inductrack, HyperloopTT’s technology has already yielded 27 patents, and further innovations are taking place around the world.
In the five years since HyperloopTT started on the hyperloop project, they have been building partnerships, securing and developing technology, and designing ways to make the system better. Many parts have already been built, such as the world’s first full scale passenger capsule.
The capsule is comparable to the body of an airplane—30 meters long and 2.7 meters-wide, which is similar to the size of a regional jet. Tubes have been laid, capsules have been built, and the vacuum issues has been solved. With preparation complete, HyperloopTT is ready to build the first full-scale hyperloop.
A large problem associated with the creation and deployment of the hyperloop is that because the hyperloop doesn’t exist today, new regulations and safety guidelines need to be created. HyperloopTT has been working with Munich Re, the largest reinsurance company in the world, to insure the technology—a major milestone in commercializing the tech—as well as with TÜV SÜD, one of the leading safety institutes in the world, to develop safety guidelines. HyperloopTT also has agreements with governments around the world to create and implement these guidelines and regulations.
Fig. 6 - Render of the hyperloop in the UAE
HyperloopTT has two commercial agreements to start building the hyperloop—in the Emirates and in China. The design and construction processes have started in both locations, where a five to ten-kilometer line is planned to create the necessary certification processes before longer lines are built.
It has been five years since HyperloopTT began building the hyperloop. Ahlborn recalls that many people have said that the task is impossible. “We like naysayers because when they say, ‘it won’t work because of this,’ it gives you a chance to fact-check,” Ahlborn continues, “I think when someone tells you that it can’t be done, it’s because they haven’t figured out how to do it yet—not that you can’t figure it out.”
Ahlborn finishes by cordially inviting all interested parties to ride inside the first moving hyperloop—when it’s finished in five years.
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