Hyperloop: a "vacuum" world metro network
The Hyperloop project proposes transporting people in tubes suspended within a vacuum at 1,200 kilometers per hour and connecting cities around the world in a global network. Will its promoters manage to transform their dreams into reality?
Trains, planes and automobiles – each of these modes of transport radically changed the way people get around. They transformed cities and offered their residents the opportunity to travel to different countries, to break the boundaries of the known. But it looks like in the future we won´t get around by land, air or sea, but rather in vacuum tubes. This is the idea behind the Hyperloop, a transportation proposal based on capsules capable of travelling at high speed through tubes suspended within a vacuum. This may sound like science fiction, but companies are already working on turning this concept into a reality. Will this be the metro of the future?
To understand the current excitement surrounding the Hyperloop, one need look no further than the co-founder of Tesla, Elon Musk. In 2013, Musk presented the Hyperloop concept to the world through a manual which he published on the website of another of his companies, SpaceX, which is focused on aerospace transportation. Tesla´s mastermind spoke of a supersonic train capable of travelling at high speeds; high enough to cover the distance of over 600 kilometers which separates San Francisco and Los Angeles (both in the United States) in just 30 minutes.
Specifically, the Hyperloop proposes to transport people aboard capsules inside a vacuum tube. Each capsule is mounted on six meter stilts and can hold approximately 30 people. The objective is to reach speeds of 1,200 kilometers per hour. This speed would be reached thanks to the minimal contact between the capsule and the tube. To accomplish this, the capsules must levitate, to avoid touching the tube, and be introduced into a vacuum tube to prevent air friction.
The professor at the Higher Technical School of Civil Engineers, Canals and Ports at the Polytechnic University of Madrid (Spain) Manuel G.Romana explains: "It would have the same capacity as a bus and passengers would travel at speeds similar to those of an airplane. The system is similar to the pneumatic tubes used in some buildings to move documents or cash between departments." The rest is just a question of designing a way to do the same thing with humans.
The Hyperloop promises to take shape as a new, safer and more sustainable mode of transportation. This technology would connect cities all around the world more efficiently, would be more environmentally-friendly, would not emit greenhouse gases and would be solar-powered; and according to the companies behind its development, the objective is to make travel more affordable than any flight could ever hope to be.
Avances to date
Although Musk demonstrated great faith in the idea, he confirmed publicly that SpaceX would not develop commercial hyperloops, as the company is currently focused on space travel. Instead, he invited other companies and universities to continue working on the proposal. SpaceX, meanwhile, would help by providing knowledge and installations.
The startups Hyperloop One (now called Virgin Hyperloop One) and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) were founded with the objective on converting this project into reality. Today, they are competing to be the first in developing and commercializing this system.
Hyperloop One proposes a kind of air pocket atop which the capsule would travel, and has already performed two trials in the deserts of Nevada (US). Likewise, the company is studying the construction of several lines, Ciudad de México - Guadalajara in Mexico (13 minutes) and Dubai-Abu Dhabi (12 minutes).
HTT, on the other hand, is pursuing a passive magnetic levitation system which does not require electromagnets. The company is organized in the form of a collaborative platform comprised of over 600 engineers who are participating in the development of this technology. HTT´s objective is to present their first full-scale prototype in 2018, and the company has won a bid to connect the cities of Amaravati y Vijaywadap in the Indian state of Andhra (6 minutes).
These companies are leading the charge, but universities and innovation hubs have also responded to Musk´s call to arms. A German team of students at the Technical University of Munich, called WARR Hyperloop, won the last edition of the annual, international competition Hyperloop Pod sponsored by SpaceX. Last year, the Makers UPV team from the Polytechnical University of Valencia (Spain) was recognized for the Best Design and Propulsion System. Three of the directors of this group launched the startup Zeleros, which won the Santander Yuzz entrepreneurship prize. Their objective is to develop their own hyperloop technology, and they aim to become leaders in Europe. "The interest in this mode of transportation is global and the keys to it working are safety and energy efficiency. We need a lot more research," says one of the startup´s co-founders, David Pistonis.
Is this really a viable idea?
The most optimistic outlooks predict that this technology will become available in 2020, but this hypothetical metro network still needs to overcome several political and technological obstacles.
For example, last July, Musk announced via Twitter that he had received verbal approval from the US government to build a tunnel for a potential hyperloop which would connect New York and Washington (both in the US), a distance of over 300 kilometers. But the Tesla co-founder also recognized that in order to move from words to actions he would need permission from several different federal, state and local authorities.
In terms of the technical issues, the most critical point is to guarantee complete safety. " At the speeds at which you work the procedures and certifications should be similar to those of aviation, the minimum margin of error," Pistonis explains. Romana agrees: "You have to identify three situations: having a passenger in danger due to a medical emergency, having a capsule at risk due to a technical failure or changes in the tube in the next strech, and the need to make an unscheduled stop."
This kind of difficulties can be overcome. Many people are working on just this – even NASA has joined forces with the project. Once these issues have been resolved, the definitive step will be society´s willingness to adopt this technology. We might be on the verge of the next big technological revolution and people will not feel daunted by the prospect of travelling inside a tube. At the end of the day, millions of people already travel underground on metro and subway systems and no one finds that strange.
By Alba Casilda