Hyperloop: The Fastest Mode Of Transportation On Earth

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What if you could travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just 45 minutes? Which is almost a 6-hour ride by car and 1 hour by airplane. You will be surprised to know that this can be possible with this new mode of transportation, which is about to revolutionize the world, called the hyperloop. Hyperloop is assumed to be the fastest way to travel across the surface of the Earth. It presents an opportunity for the transportation system to keep up with the pace of the 21st-century. Hyperloop is the future of transportation. It is three and a half times faster than a bullet train and can travel at a speed of more than 700 miles per hour. Hyperloop allows passengers to travel in magnetic pods, levitating inside a pressurized tube, at airline speed of more than a thousand kilometers per hour using electric propulsion in magnetic levitation. Hyperloop can reduce the journey time of several hours to minutes, making it possible to live in one city and work in another, which is thousands of kilometers away. Hyperloop may feel like some science fiction, but it is just a few years away from becoming a reality as it conducted a successful human test drive in November 2020.

What is Hyperloop?

In 2013, Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and Space X, introduced the term 'Hyperloop' in his 58-page long paper, named as 'Hyperloop Alpha'. He wrote that he was disappointed with the approval of the California high-speed rail project as to why would Silicon Valley, a global center for high technology and innovation, which is putting rovers on Mars, would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world. He added that we need an alternative to flying and driving. According to him, the new transportation system should ideally be safer, cheaper, faster, more convenient, immune to weather, sustainably self-powered, resistant to earthquake, and not disruptive to those along the route. So, through Hyperloop Alpha, Musk set out his vision for a futuristic super high-speed transportation system that would use vacuum steel tubes for passenger pods to travel between the cities. He suggested that Hyperloop is best for high traffic city pairs that are less than 1500 km apart, and for distances more than that, supersonic air travel would end up being more efficient. So, to make super-fast travel possible, a tube with a special environment over or under the ground is a must. One solution could be the enlarged version of pneumatic tubes used to send mails and packages within buildings. But, it's not a good idea to implement as we would need very powerful fans to push at high speed and propel pods through the 350 mile-long tube from LA to San Francisco. And, the friction generated would be so high that it is impossible for all practical purposes. Therefore, to avoid air resistance, we need reduced-pressure vacuum tubes.

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The idea of using low-pressure or vacuum tubes is not a new one. A similar concept was used in Victoria, South London, 1864, where the Crystal Palace pneumatic railway used air pressure to push a wagon uphill and a vacuum to drag it down. Isambard Kingdom Brunel's atmospheric railway that ran between Exeter and Plymouth in the UK from 1847 to 1848 moved carriage with pressurized air to create air vacuum. The air was extracted from a pipe that ran between rails by pumping stations, situated roughly every three miles along the route. A piston contained within this pipe was connected to the train, pulled it forward. It was successful in its initial phases, but soon the leather flaps that made the vacuum pipes airtight began to fail, to cause air to leak from the system and, Brunel's railway was abandoned. 

At that time, when he released his Hyperloop Alpha paper, Musk said that he was too busy to work on the Hyperloop. But, he had stated that the concept of Hyperloop would be open source, similar to Linux, and had encouraged others to come together to develop the technology for Hyperloop independently.

How does the Hyperloop work?

To make Hyperloop faster than any other mode of transportation, we need to remove the key factor that holds a lot of trains and airplanes back, and that is friction (mainly air resistance). Planes are faster than trains because they avoid friction with the ground while being in the air and travel at high altitudes through less dense air to reduce air resistance. By removing these factors we can build something faster than any other vehicle.

Hyperloop works on two principles. The first is magnetic levitation (or MagLev) and, the second principle is the use of low-pressure vacuum-sealed tubes.

Magnetic levitation is the technology that allows the Hyperloop capsule to float above the tube's surface removing the contact surface friction between the passenger-carrying pod and the tube-shaped track. It also allows the pod to travel at incredibly high speed. MagLev is already used in monorails. The concept behind the Maglev is that the magnets lining the bottom of the pod repel the tube, levitating the pod as it runs. MagLev uses two sets of magnets: one to repel the pod from the track to lift it upward. The other to move the floating pod along the track at high speed. A combination of Passive and Active Maglev is used to make the ride smooth throughout the journey. Passive Maglev uses permanent magnets to create a constant magnetic current that levitates the pod. While Active MagLev uses a combination of permanent magnets and electromagnets. The use of electromagnets is to manipulate the flow of electric current and the strength of that current. Thus, Active and Passive Maglev ensures that the pod travel at a constant height from the ground. If it gets too close, it reduces its strength, and if it gets too far, it adds up the strength to balance the pod in the tube if there is a bump in the track.

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The second principle is used to overcome air resistance which consumes most of the energy in high-speed travel. Airplanes fly at high altitudes to travel through less dense air to reduce air friction. To create a similar environment on the ground, Hyperloop uses reduced-pressure vacuum-sealed tubes which allow trains to travel at airplane speed at the earth's surface. And, this environment is created by using vacuum pumps. These pumps would be located along the tube every 10 kilometers and, theoretically, would suck out 99.9% of the air between the capsule and the tube, reducing the air drag. If you are interested to know how would it feel in these vacuum tubes, you can imagine riding in a car, stick out your hand out of the window. Since there is no air out there, you wouldn't feel the force pushing back your hand. It would feel more like riding in an elevator or a passenger plane. These Hyperloop models are used by the Virgin Hyperloop One and Hyperloop TT. 

By removing almost all the air from the tube and having no contact in between the pod and the tube, the pod would face little to no resistance as it moves. The air pressure inside the tube will be equivalent to flying 200,000 feet above sea level. And these conditions make such an environment that allows the pod to reach speed more than 760 miles per hour, consuming very little energy.

Comparison to Musk's Hyperloop Alpha-model

According to Musk's Hyperloop Alpha paper, the capsule would float above the tube's surface on a set of 28 air bearings skis, just like the puck floats above the table in an air hockey game. A major difference between MagLev and Musk's model is that the pod (not the track) generates the air cushion, featuring pressurized air and aerodynamic lift, rather than the tube, to make it as cheaper and simple as possible. And as for air resistance, Musk's Hyperloop tube has air pressure equivalent to 1/6th of that Mars atmosphere. As a result, the operating pressure would be 100 Pascal. It would reduce the drag force by thousand times relative to the sea level and is equivalent to Earth's atmospheric condition over 15,000 feet. Hyperloop Alpha is mounted by an electric compressor fan positioned at the nose of the pod that transfers high-pressure air from the front to the rear of the vessel.

How would Hyperloop be powered?

As most of the economies are aiming to achieve the 'Zero Carbon Emission' goal, the question arises how would it be powered? Would Hyperloop run on renewables and, would it be self-powering? Musk wrote in his Hyperloop Alpha paper that it could be powered by renewable technologies, which would, definitely, a clean alternative to air or rail travel. With the help of solar panels, Hyperloop can generate more than enough energy needed to operate. That includes stored energy in the form of battery packs to operate at night and for periods of extended cloudy weather. Musk added that the energy could also be stored in the form of compressed air that would run an electric fan in reverse to generate power.

How much would it cost to build a Hyperloop? 

For LA to San Francisco Hyperloop model, Musk estimated a budget of $6 bn for the passenger transportation system and $7.5 bn for a combined passenger-cargo capsule. He proposed that LA to San Francisco journey time would be of 35 minutes, pods departing every 30 seconds, each would carry 28 passengers. By amortizing the capital cost of 6 billion dollars over 20 years and transporting 7.4 million people each way every year, the ticket for one way could cost $20 to a passenger. The Passenger-plus version of Hyperloop costs 25% more than the passenger-only version. It is capable of transporting passengers, vehicles, freight, etc. According to him, the passenger-only version would cost 9% less and the passenger-plus vehicle version would cost 11% less than the proposed passenger-only and passenger-plus version of the high-speed rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Further technological development and optimization can reduce this cost in the future.

The Tube network is the costliest part of the Hyperloop transportation system, with an overall cost of the tube pillars, vacuum pumps, and stations over $4 billion for the passenger version of the Hyperloop ($7 billion for passenger-plus version). Forty capsules, each cost around $1.35 million, add up to $54 million ($70 million for passenger-cargo version).

Who are in the race to build the Hyperloop?

Elon Musk laid the foundation for Hyperloop in 2012. He made the idea open-source instead of keeping it to himself. He wanted a community of developers to come together to develop the technology that can make Hyperloop a reality. His idea was well received and consequently led to the formation of several startups and student teams to develop various aspects of Hyperloop technology. Now, several companies and startups are working on Hyperloop. Virgin Hyperloop One, HTT TransPod, Arrivo are some of them. Each of them is developing this technology in their way. But, the fundamental idea remains the same.

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Virgin Hyperloop One is now a step closer to Hyperloop as they conducted a successful human test drive. In November 2020, Virgin Hyperloop's co-founder, CEO, and CTO, George Giegel, and director-of-passenger experience, Sara Luchian, became the first people to ride in the Hyperloop. It was originally founded as Hyperloop One in 2014. After getting a significant investment from sir Richard Branson in 2017, it was renamed Virgin Hyperloop One. It successfully has raised $295 million. Virgin Hyperloop One is controlled by advanced software that ensures acceleration and deacceleration occur gradually, going relatively unnoticed to those traveling inside.

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Despite saying he was too busy, Musk is working on Hyperloop. In 2018, he received verbal approval for constructing a New York to Philadelphia to Baltimore to Washington DC Hyperloop network, which would reduce the journey time between New York to Washington DC to just 29 minutes. In February 2019, Musk's Boring company received a permit for preparatory and excavation work in New York. The boring company was founded by Elon Musk to dig tunnels easier, faster, and at a low cost. It aims to dig tunnels at one-tenth of the standard price. It will build a high-speed-Loops underground transportation system that transports passengers in autonomous electric vehicles, AEV, at 150 mph. These loops could also be used for Hyperloops, which could transport pods at a speed of more than 700 miles per hour.

When and where will Hyperloop be available?

Virgin Hyperloop One has conducted a few successful human test drives till today. The test drives were conducted in a two-set prototype that traveled 500m, reaching a speed of 172 kilometers per hour within 6.25 seconds through a 500-meter long DevLoop with a diameter of 3.3 meters, located 30 minutes from Las Vegas in the Nevada desert. It has projects underway in Missouri, Texas, Colorado, North Carolina, Midwest, India, Saudi Arabia, and UAE. It will be building its new certification testing facility in West Virginia in 2022. "Around 2025, we are intending to certify a fleet of vehicles, each can carry 28 passengers", said Josh. In 2018, the firm unveiled their prototype passenger pods for the Dubai-Abu Dhabi route that would cut the travel time from 2 hours to just 12 minutes. In February 2019, Virgin Hyperloop announced their Pune-Mumbai demonstration track plan for the Indian state of Maharashtra and got approval from the state government in June 2019. Its construction would take 5 to 7 years, and it will be a 25-minute journey for a distance of 140 km between these two cities. It has identified 11 potential routes in the US and nine routes across Europe (connecting 75 million people in 44 cities). In Saudi Arabia, they are connecting Riyadh to Jeddah using Hyperloop with a journey time of 76 minutes from 10 hours.

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Hyperloop TT also signed an MoU with Andhra Pradesh economic development board in September 2019 between Vijayawada and Amravati turning a one-hour ride into just 6 minutes. It is also constructing a route between Bratislava (Slovakia) and Brno (Czech Republic). It has also built a testing track in Toulouse, France. Hyperloop TT told the Australian government that they could reduce Sydney to Canberra trip to just 22 minutes. It is currently working on a full-sized test track in Abu Dhabi. Its first US project will run from Chicago to Cleveland.

We can assume that the Hyperloop service could be available around 2030 for general public use.