Elon Musk’s vision for a super-fast transportation system could yet become a reality. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO published a white paper in 2013 outlining how trains could travel at supersonic speeds of up to 1,000 km/h using reduced pressure tubes. He challenged anyone and everyone to try and build this technology and, in recent weeks, we have started to hear from the startups aiming to commercialize the billionaire inventor’s idea.
Last week, Hyperloop One conducted the first public display of its propulsion system when it sent a sled speeding down a track at 116 mph. It main competitor, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, announced an agreement with Slovakia to build an ultra high-speed transit route between Bratislava and Vienna.
These companies are also vying with students to be the first to produce the technology. While neither SpaceX or Musk is affiliated with any Hyperloop companies, they’re keen to help accelerate development of a functional prototype. They are currently running an open competition, geared towards students and independent engineering teams, to design and build a Hyperloop pod.
Students from MIT won the design round of the competition in January and will now get the chance to test their human-scale pod against more than twenty universities and organizations at a SpaceX track this summer. They unveiled their fully built pod this past week. The following blog will look at Elon Musk’s original concept for the hyperloop and the difficulties companies may have in bringing it to reality.
What is the Hyperloop?
The hyperloop system is a concept proposed by Elon Musk in a 2013 white paper in which passengers are loaded into pods and fired through vacuum tubes at more than 1,000 km/h. These pressurized capsule pods ride on an air cushion in steel tubes driven by linear induction motors and air compressors, which allows them to travel faster than current trains.
The idea is to reduce journey times over long distances. For example, Musk says the commute from San Francisco to Los Angeles - currently a five-hour drive or an hour of flying - could be cut to 30 minutes. Musk and SpaceX were clear that they had no intention of developing a commercial Hyperloop themselves, but wanted the knowledge to be open-sourced.
The closest equivalent to hyperloop technology would be the high-speed maglev trains used in countries like Japan and China. Magnetic levitation or maglev removes friction between the train and track, allowing high speeds to be achieved, with the current world record being 581 km/h.
While Hyperloop One is developing a working version of Musk’s air cushion concept, rival Hyperloop Transportation Technology is working on a technology known as “passive magnetic levitation.” This relies on magnets placed on the underside of the train in a Halbach array. The magnetic fields under the train cause it to levitate as it passes over non-powered electromagnetic coils on the rail beneath the train. However, at the moment, the levitation only works if the train is moving slowly.
The MIT team’s version will also use magnets to levitate. But speaking to the BBC, the team said their braking system needed more testing and they are having substantial problems making the pod turn. Hyperloop skeptics have been quick to point out several other challenges facing the technology, including affordability and thermal expansion.
Christopher Merian, chief engineer on the MIT team, told the BBC that the key challenge for the hyperloop concept is it can’t handle corners. Elon Musk’s original concept only considered travelling in a straight line from A to B. This creates numerous problems for a proposed route from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Then there is, of course, the expense. Musk estimates the cost of building that said route would be in the region of $6 billion. Another recent report quotes a figure of $14 billion, while a New York Times survey among various experts estimated the true cost could be more like $100 billion. It will also have to compete against the California High Speed Rail, which is currently under construction and will have the capacity to carry well over a thousand people.
The MIT team says their design will likely be able to carry 20 people at once, although this could be scaled up. With such a small passenger number, and likely high demand, the tickets for the hyperloop would need to be exorbitantly high.
Critics have drawn comparisons between the hyperloop and the concorde. The supersonic passenger jet was hailed an aviation icon and an engineering marvel when it entered service. But it was retired in 2003 in the midst of a general downturn in the commercial aviation industry, due to a lack of profitability.
Will the hyperloop be plagued with similar issues? For now, the future looks bright. Hyperloop One says it will build and test a complete hyperloop in the fourth quarter of this year. While the second phase of SpaceX’s prototype competition is also scheduled to take place this summer.
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(Photo Credit - Mrdeluna)