Owing to the pandemic, no one is going anywhere these days, but let’s talk about the good old days. How much time did it take for you to commute to work every day? How often could you spare the time to visit your relatives who lived in a different state? How much money did you spend on airplane tickets for business meetings and holidays?
It may be so that 6000 years ago we walked everywhere, and before the 20th century, most of us were perfectly content without the existence of airplanes. But the pace of our times now demands an even faster means for getting places. It is this need that created the idea for the hyperloop.
The Hyperloop is a proposed form of high-speed ground transportation currently under development. It can be designed for passenger and freight transport, with speed capabilities expected to surpass all existing forms of transport.
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The design of the hyperloop has been reiterated numerous times and is being simultaneously tested by various companies, but all of them are some form of the basic design. This design consists of sealed pods (also called capsules) carrying people or cargo zipping along tubes. Hyperloop is capable of connecting different city centers in quite the same way a metro rail system connects major stops within a city.
Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, proposed the concept of the Hyperloop Alpha in a white paper published in August 2013. In it, he described a hyperloop transport system running a route in California from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Travelling at a maximum speed of 1220 kph (760 mph), the 560 km (350 miles) route could be traversed in 35 minutes.
Conceptual design sketch of the Hyperloop passenger transport capsule from the Hyperloop Alpha system
He described it as a potential fifth mode of transport after the existing rail, road, water, and air travel systems.
The system Musk proposed isn’t entirely novel. The use of compressed air for rail transport can be seen as far back as the 1800s, with the “atmospheric railway” systems that never gained traction. The roots of the hyperloop system can be traced back to the vacuum train concept first proposed by Robert Goddard in 1904.
From the very beginning, Musk had declared the hyperloop as an open-source transportation concept, meaning other companies and scientists were encouraged to build on his ideas. Since then, the idea has been taken up by students, startups, and large companies, all of them moving the concept further into becoming a more feasible model.
Musk famously described his hyperloop concept as a cross between "a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table."
The working principle of hyperloop technology is based on overcoming the two main barriers to faster transportation- friction and air resistance. The concept builds on the idea of the vacuum train to create a much more advanced and feasible model.
Vacuum trains were theorized to run using magnetic levitation in vacuum-sealed tubes or tunnels, thereby reducing or even eliminating air resistance and friction. This means that very little energy is required for running these trains at high speeds. But building and maintaining full vacuum tubes is neither practical nor economical.
Musk proposed instead a low-pressure system, which could be maintained much more easily. His design suggests mounting an electric compressor fan on the nose of the pod to maintain pressure. This can also help in creating a low friction suspension system with air bearings. An external linear electric motor is used to power the fan. Acceleration is only needed to initially get the pod to high speeds and for periodic re-boosts.
So basically, capsules move along a low-pressure tube at high speeds. The capsules are lifted using air cushions, and those in combination with the low-pressure system results in an arrangement where there is minimum friction and air resistance, meaning high speeds can be maintained without much external acceleration. When acceleration is needed, an external motor is used.
During construction, there are three distinct components in such a hyperloop transportation system-
A partially evacuated cylindrical tube serves the purpose that tracks do in a conventional railway system. Motors are suggested to be placed along the tube for acceleration and deceleration of capsules. The tube can possibly be built of steel and supported by concrete pylons. Musk suggested mounting solar panels on the tube to make it fully self-powering.
Capsules are sealed vessels used to transport passengers and/or cargo. Elements of the propulsion will be mounted on the capsules. Most designs have suggested that the capacity of each capsule be at 25-50 passengers or 15-18,000 kg cargo.
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Stations are constructed for the boarding and unboarding of passengers and cargo. Most companies put their focus on designing minimalist, fully automated stations and are working on measures to prevent overcrowding and delays in boarding.
In his paper, Musk had mentioned different criteria that he expected a potential new transport system to satisfy, which added up to a safer, faster, more economical, more convenient, weather and disaster-resistant, sustainable, and non-disruptive system of travel. How does a realistic model of the hyperloop technology satisfy all of these criteria, and to what extent?
The most obvious advantage that hyperloop provides is the speed of course, with Musk’s design claiming a 1220 kph (760 mph) peak speed, and subsequent iterations, test models, and projections confirming that those speeds are possible. When used along routes that have the most density of passengers, setting up even a single route can significantly save commute times for millions of people.
If you consider the Los Angeles- San Francisco route initially proposed, and use the latest data provided by Virgin Hyperloop, you get the following results, which are close to Musk’s initial projections-
Mode of Transport
Time Taken for Commute
6 hr 40 min
3 hr 50 min
3 hr 42 min
0 hr 43 min
Although the futuristic nature of hyperloop technology may make it seem like it would be a costly prospect, it doesn’t seem to be so. The construction and maintenance of hyperloop infrastructure costs considerably less than a high-speed train network. And this, combined with low operational costs, makes tickets cheaper too. This is also why it been seen as feasible in countries like India.
Proposed hyperloop stations give a great emphasis to the passenger experience. Pods that depart often and go direct to the target destination avoid unnecessary stops. Hyperloop pods also promise a comfortable journey. Gradual accelerations and decelerations are done to prevent passengers from feeling jolted.
With hyperloop paving the way for more interconnected cities, a unified workforce becomes more of a reality. People can commute to work in a different city every day if they wanted, breaking economic and geographic barriers.
Since hyperloop tubes form a closed environment, weather-related delays can be completely avoided. The pylons supporting the tubes also have dampers to provide protection against earthquakes.
A hyperloop system, working on an electric propulsion system, produces no carbon emissions. It is also practically silent and would not contribute to noise pollution.
The system is set up on pylons at ground level and can be built underground or crossing water bodies, and may even be set up along existing train routes. This means that there will be minimum disruption of existing infrastructure. Clearing large amounts of agricultural land would also not be necessary. Most hyperloop companies are also committed to keeping all parts of the construction process environment friendly.
Benefits of Hyperloop Transportation
This is the aspect of Hyperloop that has been most under scrutiny. The fear factor of hyperloop mostly comes from the picture that one gets when imagining travelling in a sealed pod that is travelling at close to supersonic speeds inside a low pressure sealed tube. Emergency evacuation procedures and the consequences of power failure are often questioned.
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But designs of the hyperloop system are not yet in its finished form, and the first human trial was a success on all fronts. The fears caused by this system are no greater than those posed by aeroplanes and trains when they were introduced.
The weather and disaster resistance, automated systems, and possible self-powering capability of hyperloop systems make it safer than most current forms of transportation. At the end of the day, the realistic risks of the hyperloop are less than the chance of an aeroplane falling out of the sky, or a train going off its tracks.
The open-source nature of Musk’s original concept, as well as the huge potential impact of this technology, has resulted in a race to see who opens up hyperloop for commercial use first. Musk and his affiliate companies have shown lessened interest in the construction of a hyperloop system, at least on Earth anyway. It may tie in with his other projects- as Musk has reportedly said that hyperloop has applications for serving as a means of travel on Mars.
But other companies investing in and experimenting with hyperloop have become bigger. And some are even close to getting the system up and running and open for business soon.
Arguably the leaders in the hyperloop race, Virgin Hyperloop was established in 2014. Their designs vary in several aspects from Musk’s proposal. Notably, they use a magnetic levitation propulsion system, although their system is projected to perform a lot more efficiently than the existing maglev trains. They successfully conducted the first human trial on a hyperloop system in their test site in Nevada and reached a peak speed of 172 kph (107 mph). They plan to set up routes primarily over the US, India, and Saudi Arabia. Virgin Hyperloop expects that they can begin carrying passengers as soon as 2027.
Another leader in the Hyperloop world is Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HyperloopTT). HyperloopTT signed an agreement with the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) in 2018 to conduct a feasibility study of the Great Lakes and released a report on the Great Lakes Hyperloop Feasibility Study in 2019.
HyperloopTT projections predict they can build fully operational systems ready for use by 2028.
Elsewhere, in Europe, the Joint Technical Committee 20 was formed in 2020, to implement the standardization of hyperloop technology throughout Europe. The companies included in this are Hardt, Nevomo, TransPod, and Zeleros. This standardization ensures better safety and ease of operability across borders.
A lot of us end up rarely seeing our friends because they live too far away, and giving up our dream jobs because it was too far to commute and it was inconvenient to move. As Musk himself implied in his paper, short of figuring out a way to actually teleport, the Hyperloop may be our only chance at faster and cheaper transportation.
There are several barriers to a hyperloop revolution across the globe, and a variety of political and economical concerns, among others, need to be addressed in the journey forward. But still, from the looks of it, in 10 years, commercial hyperloop transport systems will surely become a reality. And in 15 or 20 years, they may even become as widespread as cars, trains and planes.
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