If you have not been living in a cave for the past three years, you probably already heard about Hyperloop’s concept. We tried to learn a bit more about this disruptive technology that is currently being developed by the company Hyperloop One.
What is the technology behind the hyperloop?
In 2013, Elon Musk publishes Hyperloop Alpha white paper which presents the initial idea of moving vehicles at high speeds through low-pressure tubes. Today, Hyperloop One presents the technology that will use an electric motor having two basic components: the rotor which rotates and the stator which is stationary. The stator is an electro-magnet that is attracted to spin when an electric current passes through it. Unlike a normal electric motor, the Hyperloop One motor is not circular but linear. The rotor on the pod is thus propelled magnetically as it moves over the stator.
The Hyperloop also uses magnetic levitation to lift the pod off the track and avoid friction. Moreover, nearly all the air inside the tube is removed using a series of vacuum pumps. This reduces drag so only a small amount of electricity is needed to achieve extraordinary speed. The system is planning to operate on customer demand and be direct from origin to destination. According to Hyperloop One’s planning, first systems should be operational by 2021.
What is planned for the UK?
In 1892, the rail map produced by the London Underground’s District line displayed the mantra “Time is Money”. This mantra that has been followed during the last centuries to develop UK’s transportation system might be taken to the next level as the system is facing a complete revolution in the coming years with the two Hyperloop routes currently announced by Hyperloop One.
Can you imagine going from Edinburgh to London in 50 minutes? This North-South connector would be built to support the transportation ‘spine’ of the UK. The second route allowing Glasgow – Liverpool in 47 minutes would enable to build a super region of interconnected cities. These two routes highlight how Hyperloop’s speed would allow higher labour mobility and greater interchange of skills between strong places of the territory.
Is it simply too good to be true?
Elon Musk’s white paper detailing the concept of Hyperloop divided opinion when it came out. It simply sounded too good to be true. Many concerns about the feasibility of the project in terms of technology started arising.
Scientists expressed concerns regarding to the radial thermal expansion of the steel tubes under direct sunlight. The phenomenon would result in pipeline distortions between joints. To put it in numbers, over a 100km pipeline, the longitudinal thermal expansion could reach 50m. This means that a great number of flexible joints would have to be created. So many moving joints all under vacuum would create a really heavy maintenance process, inducing really high maintenance costs as well.
Other alarms arose from the steel tube resistance. Considering that the internal pressure is drastically reduced, the steel needs to be strong enough to withstand the outside normal atmospheric pressure. The atmospheric forces acting on the outside of Hyperloop would be around 100 tonnes/m2.Sudden buckling then appears to be a very real potential hazard. Vibrational forces of the pods would also have impact on the tube. Regarding to this data, scientists advance that the steel pipelines wall thickness will very likely need to be greater than the current test pipelines of only 20mm.
Regarding to the safety aspect, Hyperloop appears to be very vulnerable to terrorism. Shooting holes in the thin tubing surrounding Hyperloop’s vacuum would create air pockets that would trigger cascading failure. Finally, doubts are emitted as to whether the announced costs are way too underestimated. The extra cost could make the economics of Hyperloop nonviable or not accessible to every population class.
In conclusion, for Hyperloop to really work it must combine speed and efficiency which today seems like a great challenge to achieve. If high-speed autonomous cars or airport queues can be significantly reduced in the coming years, Hyperloop might not be able to compete beyond its novelty. Will Hyperloop start a revolution in the way we apprehend transportation? Is it too far ahead of its time to succeed? Time will indeed tell.