Hyperloop

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Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, Tesla Motors, and PayPal, has proposed another method of modern transportation; a subsonic looped pod system, or hyperloop. Although the idea was not initially his, he was the first to modernize the invention and bring it the closest to fruition thus far. The idea utilizes the concept of the pneumatic tube systems that are currently used at banks and mail centers paired with the concept of an air hockey table.[1] Musk proposed the idea after analyzing California’s high speed rail project and describing it as too expensive and too slow. His proposed system would travel within a tube supported by pylons along California Interstate 5 and run solely of off solar power attained by solar panels mounted along the tubes' upper exterior. The pod would travel at speeds up to nine-tenths the speed of sound and transport passengers, and possibly automobiles, 350 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco in only half an hour with an estimated capacity of 840 passengers per hour. According to Musk, the “the journey will feel very smooth” and “a lot like being on an airplane.”[1] The project is expected range in cost from $6 billion to $10 billion depending on which version is constructed and could be seen through to completion in seven to ten years.

History

Pneumatic tube systems in mail rooms, department stores, and banks have been around for many decades and the idea to translate the same technology to human transportation has also existed. In the December issue of Popular Mechanics in 1957, engineer Honeywell predicted that by 2000 this technology would be integrated into contemporary modes of transportation.[2] Years later in 1972, a RAND Corp scientist developed an original idea about a similar hyperloop entitled, “Very High Speed Transit System.” In his design, electromagnetic forces were used to transport the cars through a vacuum sealed tube.[3] However, nothing was made from these events and it was not until August 12, 2013 that a truly feasible proposal was made by Elon Musk.

Operation

Elon Musk explains in meticulous detail his intentions for his hyperloop in his alpha plan consisting of a 57 page proposal, in which he specifically encourages any criticism or helpful remarks that would benefit the concept. Musk is rather occupied with the endeavors of his other businesses and would hopes for others’ involvement as well as his own on this project so as not to allocate too much time away from his current efforts.

Technology

Contrary to most people’s beliefs, his hyperloop would not run on a Maglev system used in bullet trains but would exploit the properties of pressurized air, which contributes to the propulsion force of the system. Each pod will intake air from a front mounted compressor and then pump air through little holes in its skis. This will create cushions of air, or air bearings for the pods to travel upon, in turn creating very low friction between the pod and tube. The air density within the tube would be the equivalent of an altitude of 150,000 feet on Earth and thus dramatically reduces the drag due to friction. Linear inductor motors, consisting of an aluminum blade extending from the pod that moves between two magnetic elements in the tube, would be placed approximately every 70 miles and would accelerate the pods initially and slow them down towards the end of the trip. The energy from the linear inductor motors would be conserved so that the energy absorbed while decelerating the pod could be used to recharge the system’s batteries. And the motors and batteries currently used in Musk’s Tesla Model S cars are the same ones that could be implemented in the system.

Capsules

The pod, or capsule as Musk refers to it in his alpha plan, could carry 28 people in a layout of 2 columns of 14 rows, and 3 vehicles in addition in the passenger plus vehicle capsule. The capsule would measure 1.35m by 1.86m and is streamlined for aerodynamics yet still maintains passenger comfort according to Musk.[1] The passenger plus vehicle capsule would have an increased width to accommodate for a vehicle as wide as the Tesla Model S. Inside, seats would be contoured for passenger comfort and similar to airplanes, each passenger would have access to a personal entertainment system.

Tube

Musk says the tube itself would be elevated upon pylons and run side by side and thus reduce the amount of land-rights issues for construction. The dimensions of the tube would only marginally exceed those of the capsule to balance the costs as well as possibility of choked air. He continues to point out that finding the correct capsule to tube cross-sectional area ratio is crucial concerning the dynamics of airflow around the capsule and tube to maximize efficiency. The loading stations at each end would be separated from the main loop to avoid air leakage and to adeptly load and unload passengers. He also mentioned that the concept of these branches could be used to extend the route to other destinations as well.

Coming to Fruition

JumpStartFund, a Southern California-based startup, has spearheaded the idea. JumpStartFund specializes in taking open-source software and pushing it out the public even further to gain maximum exposure for peer review where they can collect the best ideas, in a method called crowdsourcing. In this particular case, they would supposedly create a team that would execute the plans for the Hyperloop. Marco Villa and Patricia Galloway, who have both held notable roles as a former director for SpaceX and the first woman president for the American Society of Civil Engineers respectively, will spend a month dedicated to searching for interests and ideas for the project as of the end of September 2013. Villa focuses on proving that the project is physically possible. He stated that there are no major deterrents at the moment and the largest factor is the relatively small budget. Continuing, he said that it is a familiar environment as it resembles SpaceX in its own beginning stages. Working alongside Villa, Galloway’s efforts have been concentrated in selling the project to the public and proving that the hyperloop is both feasible and profitable. She believes that the Hyperloop replacing California’s high-speed rail project, costing ten times more than Musk’s Hyperloop, could easily be a possibility if the influential people of California fully understood the ramifications of such a system. Galloway theorizes that the hyperloop has the potential to meet a kinder fate than the revolutionary Concorde due to the fact that the use of technology has expanded since then and now offers many opportunities for innovations coming to fruition through crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. JumpStartFund, with the help of Villa and Galloway, hope to prove that Musk’s hyperloop is much “more than a very clever idea from a billionaire industrialist.”[4]

However, there are many speculators that believe the idea will go nowhere due to scientific constraints and costs.

“And he is mostly being hailed as a visionary, an example of the kind of can-do spirit that America needs. But not all think the idea he is supporting is feasible — pointing out that traveling faster than a jet aircraft in a tube would be really, really difficult.”[5]

According to Jay Yarow from Business Insider, the success of the project as a whole ultimately depends on Musk’s involvement which, as of his proposal, is not significant. Yarow analyzes Musk’s motives for such a concept and why it will most likely not work. Musk, as founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX located in the vicinity of San Francisco and Los Angeles respectively, would greatly benefit from such a system that could take him between the two cities in a timely manner. Nevertheless, Musk has five children and serves on the board of Solar City in addition to his position of CEO at Tesla Motors and SpaceX. It is evident that he does not have much time to give to the hyperloop and this project requires “a famous billionaire with deep connections to make something as ambitious as the Hyperloop a reality.”[3]

Footnotes

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Musk, Elon. Hyperloop Alpha. SpaceX. SpaceX, 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.}}
  2. Moseman, Andrew. "Hyperloop and Friends: Why Don't We Have Super-High-Speed Rail Already?" Popular Mechanics. Popular Mechanics, 19 July 2013. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.}}
  3. 3.0 3.1 Yarow, Jay. "41 Years Ago, A Scientist Explained Why Elon Musk's Hyperloop Is Doomed."Business Insider. Business Insider, 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.}}
  4. Rogowsky, Mark. "With Engineers On Board, A Startup Is Driving The Hyperloop Idea Forward." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 26 Sept. 2013. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.}}
  5. Woodyard, Chris and Yu, Roger. "Why Elon Musk's 'hyperloop' Transport Won't Work."USA Today. Gannett, 13 Aug. 2013. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.}}