What is the Hyperloop, and why does it Matter?
Somewhere in the Nevada desert, a large metallic block accelerated from sitting to 187 km/hr in 1.1 seconds. This fast moving block is a series of tests to develop a new type of transportation called the hyperloop, and it may very well revolutionize transportation.
What is the Hyperloop?
The idea behind the hyperloop is to build a pod that can fit people or cargo in it, and use magnetic levitation to reduce friction. The pod goes through a tube that is at near-vacuum pressure, using a compressor to push any left-over air through it with a giant fan, and linear induction motors to propel it forward. The pod is designed to go faster than pretty much any form of transportation today, at speeds of greater than 700 mph. Built along a highway or in a tunnel, the hyperloop would be made to carry people or cargo between two large cities.
Why Does the Hyperloop Matter?
The hyperloop would make great economic sense. According to some estimates, it would be much less costly to build than a high-speed train. Currently, there are several plans for very expensive trains in the United States that go between large cities. Such is the case of the train to be built between Los Angeles and San Francisco, which will cost an estimated $68 billion dollars USD, is scheduled to be completed in 2028. It would also be slower than a proposed magnetic levitation train in Japan.
The hyperloop is not just intended as an alternative to trains. Commercial planes also face significant inefficiencies which are addressed by the hyperloop. When passenger planes travel relatively short distances, they spend most of their time reaching a higher elevation to where there is less air and therefore less friction to the outer-body of the plane. The other half of the trip is spent flying back to ground level. On longer flights, they can spend more time where they are in these low pressure areas, which is less costly than constantly having to adjust their altitude. So although a flight is much quicker than travelling by train or car for relatively short distances (such as between cities), the high cost of fuel is partly why plane tickets are typically more expensive compared to travel by train or car. The hyperloop aims to solve the low-pressure problem of short distances by mimicking how planes take advantage of less atmosphere, by having very low pressure tubes to go through. The hyperloop also aims to be faster for these distances than a plane, thereby producing a better value proposition from a cost and efficiency perspective.
Perhaps the greatest reason why the hyperloop matters is its place within the future of sustainability. Regardless of the source of power, using less energy to transport people is good for the environment. This comes from the opportunity cost of using fuel, as for every person who chooses the hyperloop over a train or plane is reducing energy consumption, even if it comes from a fossil fuel. Using less energy also opens up the opportunity to use renewable sources of power that are less efficient, because the environmental benefit from a Government’s perspective or the public image benefit from a company may outweigh the cost of a relatively inefficient energy source.
For the past two years, SpaceX held a competition challenging top Universities to design and build half-scale hyperloop pods. The goal for this year’s competition was to build the fastest pod possible. The top team‘s demonstration is shown here:
At Queen’s University, our team was fortunate to compete in the past two competitions. We did not make the last stage of the competition, but we also had a separate branch of our team building a 1:50 scale prototype as a side project. We demonstrated the pod in early April of this year.