Virgin Hyperloop created history last year as it completed its first successful passenger tests. Hyperloop is a new form of mass transportation that will change the way we travel. It is set to cut travel times between cities from hours to minutes. But what is hyperloop and how soon can it become a reality? Let’s find out.
A hyperloop is a super speed ground-level transportation system in which people could travel in a hovering pod inside a vacuum tube at speeds as high as 760 mph (1220 km/h), just shy of the speed of sound. Virgin’s system includes magnetic levitation, much like the technology used in advanced high-speed magnetic levitation (maglev) trains.
The levitation engines contain electromagnets that lift and guide the pod within the track, making hyperloop 10 times more efficient than the world’s fastest maglev trains.
How Does Hyperloop Technology Work?
At its core, hyperloop technology is all about removing the two things that slow down regular vehicles: friction and air resistance. To do away with the former, the pod needs to hover above its track, making hyperloop a magnetic levitation (maglev) train.
To put it in the simplest terms, maglev trains use two sets of magnets: one set to repel and push the train up off the track, and another set to move the floating train ahead, taking advantage of the lack of friction. Once two sets of magnetic waves are established, they work in tandem to push the vehicle forward.
The super speed of hyperloop, however, is achieved through drastically minimizing air resistance. The pods move through a low-pressure sealed tube, which contains vacuums that suck out nearly all the air. The low pressure minimizes friction and air resistance, greatly reducing the power needed. And because the pods travel in a tube, they’re not subject to shutdowns due to harsh weather, like snow or polar vortexes.
To avoid making anyone sick, the system would take three minutes to accelerate to that speed, and the train would need to travel six miles to turn 90 degrees. Passengers will feel 30-40% of the acceleration compared to an airplane. The trip will be so smooth that a coffee cup won’t slide even at 600 miles per hour.
How Would Hyperloop Be Powered?
The pods will get their velocity from an external linear electric motor. The Hyperloop would be powered by solar panels placed on the top of the tube which would allow the system to generate more energy than it needs to run.
Where Did It All Start?
In 2013, Elon Musk published his theories dubbed as the “alpha paper” which stated that aerodynamic aluminum capsules filled with passengers or cargo could be propelled through a nearly airless tube at airliner-speeds of up to 760 mph. These tubes, either raised on pylons or sunk beneath the earth, could be built either within or between cities. He called it a “fifth mode of transportation” and argued it could help change the way we live, work, trade, and travel. The most surreal scenario he proposed was a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than 30 minutes. The idea captured the imaginations of engineers and investors across the world.
What Is Virgin Hyperloop One?
Virgin Hyperloop One is one of the leading contenders attempting to create a commercially viable Hyperloop system. It was founded in June 2014 and has over 300 staff. It has raised $295m with the aim of building an operational system by 2021. The company currently has projects underway in USA, India, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
In February, the company announced plans for Maharashtra to build a Hyperloop between Pune and Mumbai beginning with an operational demonstration track. The project will start with a six-month feasibility study looking at the route, environmental impact, the economic and commercial aspects of the route, the regulatory framework, and cost and funding model recommendations.
The company said the construction of the full Pune-Mumbai route – a 25-minute journey – would take place in five to seven years. It added the high-capacity passenger and cargo Hyperloop route could eventually see 150 million passenger trips annually.
In June 2019, the Indian project took a step forward with the government of Maharashtra giving Hyperloop the green light and preparing to start the public procurement process. This project will be a partnership between the DP World-Virgin Hyperloop One consortia and the state government, with DP World expected to invest $500m to complete the first phase of the project which will certify the new technology for passenger operations.
Faster Pods, Bigger Challenges
The ability to maintain a vacuum in a hundreds-of-miles-long tube is an enormous challenge. Every time a pod stops, it must decelerate first. Then, the airlock must close, pressurize, and open again. And finally, it must clear the airlock before the next pod arrives. The speed at which this occurs will determine the distance between pods. Turning will also be extremely difficult. A hyperloop would need approximately six miles to execute a 90-degree turn at 600 mph.
Although the technology has addressed challenges of friction and air resistance, hyperloop projects have suffered from a different kind of drag: economics. Financial and transportation experts have expressed that Musk’s estimated $6 billion price tag understates the cost of designing, developing, constructing, and testing an all-new form of transportation. Experts believe that building and running a hyperloop would cost as much as $13 billion, or $121 million per mile.
Like any form of transit, hyperloop transport carries inherent risks, and contingencies for any unforeseen disasters still need to be engineered into the system. At high speeds, even a small earthquake or the slightest crack in the vacuum tube would pose a significant danger to passengers and crew. In addition to safety assurance, a hyperloop system must offer cheaper tickets so that it would draw passengers away from current modes of transportation.
Designing a new mode of transportation from scratch is both an opportunity and a responsibility. Maglevs such as a hyperloop can accelerate the future of mobility on land. Hyperloop is a technology that could have a huge impact on the way we travel. It could reduce air travel between big cities, boost economies and trade, and reduce the pressure on housing in cities by allowing commuters to live further away. The new mode of travel at supersonic speed rethinks transportation and the perception of land, time, and distance. Hyperloop is all set to provide holistic, smart, and cost-effective transportation for a globalized community to travel across vast distances in a safer, cleaner, easier, and faster way than ever.