Hyperloop transport moves closer to reality

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2017

Khai Trung Le looks at the burgeoning hyperloop transport market as successful full-scale tests surface.

Elon Musk’s influence is truly spectacular. Few could contest government approval of the California high-speed rail, describing it as ‘both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest’, by releasing a 58-page white paper positing a competing form of transport inspired by Josiah Latimer Clark’s pneumatic messaging tubes. Fewer still would, at the time, declare their non-involvement in said technology yet succeed in birthing a market expected to reach US$6.34bln by 2026.

Yet that is exactly what Musk did. Named the hyperloop, the entrepreneur estimated that the 350-mile journey between Los Angeles and San Francisco could be made in 30 minutes. Passengers would travel in pressured pods riding on air cushions at supersonic speeds within steel tubes emulating high altitude atmospheric conditions in so-called hyperlaps. 

Since the release of the white paper in August 2013, several hyperloop companies have emerged, with four leaders, of which Virgin Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) are arguably the most prolific. Newcomer Arrivo is taking a more obscure approach following a controversial legal battle between its founders and Virgin Hyperloop One, and Musk has thrown his hat back into the ring following government approval for his company, the Boring Company, to begin work on a predicted New York-Washington DC hyperloop.

Hat back in the loop

Shortly following Musk’s claims of receiving ‘verbal government approval’, Maryland State Governor Larry Hogan granted a conditional utility permit to allow the Boring Company to dig a 10.3 mile tunnel beneath a state-owned portion of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway as part of a much-discussed New York-Washington, DC route. Musk’s messaging has been at times vague, and it is unclear how much of the Maryland contract pertains to hyperloop development. The Boring Company noted that while most routes would be standard pressurised tunnels with electric skates that can achieve speeds up to 125mph, long-distance routes in straight lines would use depressurised tunnels accomplishing speeds around 600mph in keeping with hyperloop expectations.

Pete Rahn, Maryland Transportation Secretary, said, ‘This thing is real. It’s exciting to see. The word transformational may be overused, but this is a technology that leapfrogs any other out there today. And it’s going to be here.’

On re-entering the hyperloop market, a spokesperson from the Boring Company said, ‘[Musk] said at the time that he would only seek to commercialise hyperloop if after a few years other companies were not moving quickly enough. While we’re encouraged that others are making some progress, we would like to accelerate the development of this technology as fast as possible.’

Not everyone is enthusiastic about Musk’s entry into the hyperloop market. Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of HTT, said, ‘You would at least have wanted Musk to say, “OK guys, how can we do this together?” […] rather than saying, “Hey, I’m just gonna do it.”’ Although Brogan BamBrogan, a former SpaceX engineer who co-founded and was ousted from Virgin Hyperloop One, said, ‘To have a heavyweight like Elon throw his hat in the ring says a lot of good things […] If he’s going to be the tip of the spear on building the right set of regulations, that’ll help all of us.’ 

BamBrogan has since founded rival transportation company Arrivo, a company ‘inspired by the hyperloop concept’. It has recently announced a partnership with the Colorado Department of Transportation and Denver’s E-470 Public Highway Authority to develop a hyperloop-inspired system in Denver, USA. If a test site near the E470 toll road, connecting north and south Denver, proves successful, Arrivo predicts the route could be operational in four to five years. 

Lifting you up

Virgin Hyperloop One has opted for the open source design outlined by Musk's Tesla and SpaceX. The carbon fibre and aluminium XP-1 test pod begins the journey on 16 wheels, generating air to create an air cushion, at which point the magnetic levitation system takes over. The maglev system, also used on the Shinkansen bullet train (see page 61), chills superconducting electromagnets beneath the train carts to super cold temperatures that cause the carts to hover above the track, while separate sets of electromagnetic coils in the track control levitation and propulsion. The XP-1 has successfully reached 190mph in around five seconds in a test run, and Virgin Hyperloop One believes the top speed for cargo and passenger vehicles will be 670mph.

Speaking at Virgin Hyperloop One’s first full-scale test in July 2017, Philippa Oldham, Head of Transport and Manufacturing at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, said, ‘There still seem to be gaps in the information regarding risks and safety of the system itself,’ referring to the escalating design, production and maintenance costs. ‘As the distance of the trials increase, there will be many engineering problems to solve, including that of managing track alignment.'

Determining the route

HTT claims its Inductrack passive maglev system eliminates the need for superconducting magnets and complex and expensive infrastructure by placing powerful permanent room temperature magnets on the trains. These are arranged in a Halbach array – the magnetic orientation of each bar is at right angles to the orientation of the adjacent bars, augmenting the magnetic field on one side, while cancelling the field on the other – with current from insulated wires embedded into the track repelling the train magnets. Currently, this levitation method only works if the train is moving slowly. Bibop Gresta, Chief Operating Officer of HTT, said, ‘Utilising a passive levitation system will eliminate the need for power stations along the Hyperloop track, which […] will keep construction costs low. From a safety aspect, the system has huge advantages, levitation occurs purely through movement, therefore if any type of power failure occurs, pods would continue to levitate and only touch the ground after reaching minimal speeds.’

With the nascent technology still to be fully defined, routes remain under discussion. Despite Musk’s initial comparison with the LA-San Francisco high-speed rail, HTT and Virgin Hyperloop One have distanced themselves from this route, although they continue to tout dramatic reductions in travel time based solely on predicted speed. Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, said, ‘Virgin Hyperloop will be able to transport people from London to Scotland in 45 minutes.’ Although his claim has been indirectly challenged by Oldham, who noted, ‘Within the UK, we would not be able to use any existing transport corridors at these speeds due to their lateral curvature. In addition, travelling at those speeds means that any fault in the system would mean everyone on board would die, just as you would if you were rapidly decompressed.’

Price of progress

Musk initially claimed in 2013 that a hyperloop system connecting Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area – roughly 350 miles – would cost around US$6bln, reaching US$11.5m per mile. Leaked documents acquired by Forbes challenge these numbers, revealing that Virgin Hyperloop One had estimated costs of US$9-13bln for the 107-mile Bay Area alone – between US$84-121m per mile.

Variations between locations, including land acquisition, tunnelling costs and specific infrastructure (Virgin Hyperloop One’s Dubai-Abu Dhabi route is expected to cost US$52m per mile, in part due to plans for underwater tunnels) may help to explain disparity, although the company refused to comment on the severity of the difference. 

Regardless, the hyperloop remains a distant and fanciful proposition. Persistent legal battles, escalating costs and as-yet undefined solutions to technology infrastructure problems make it an uncertain, if exciting, possibility. ‘I have a funny feeling that I’ll get a lot of satisfaction from people saying it’s transformed their lives,’ Branson said. Only time will tell how quickly we get there.