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How Does the Hyperloop Work?

April 9, 2021

Are you curious about the hyperloop's science and if the hype about it is warranted? Let's break down how the hyperloop works and how it could change public infrastructure and transportation. 

What Is the Hyperloop?

The hyperloop is a train-like transportation design that can achieve breakthrough speeds. Hyperloop technology is still in development. With projected speeds of up to 750 miles per hour, it would be two to three times faster than bullet trains. Riders could travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes.

Hyperloop Design:

  • Enclosed chambers can carry travelers or freight.
  • Low-pressure tubes reduce aerodynamic drag. 
  • Magnetic levitation (maglev) keeps each pod hovering above the track while it's in transit.
  • Electric propulsion moves each pod through the tube.

What's the History of Hyperloop Transportation?

The transportation concept has been around since the 17th century, but the term "hyperloop" was coined by Elon Musk in a 2013 project brief. Musk open-sourced the idea, outlining his concept without any patents. This has led to several companies becoming major players in hyperloop R&D, and even students are building prototypes. 

As a result of having so many players working on hyperloop development, the speed of innovation has accelerated. Just as the space race in the mid-20th century created a competitive push to reach the moon, the open-sourcing of hyperloop technology has created a competitive fervor for a new mode of transportation. 

How Does the Hyperloop Go So Fast?

A hyperloop is able to reach extreme speeds because it addresses one of the most basic rules of physics—friction slows things down. 

Hyperloop designs rely on creating a low-friction environment within a tunnel or tube. Individual pods seating a small group of people could then travel at extreme speeds through the tubes. 

The hyperloop travels via an efficient electric motor, and friction is reduced in two ways:

  1. Depressurized tunnels create a near-vacuum environment where almost all of the air has been sucked out. This creates an environment where extremely high speeds are possible because there's minimal aerodynamic drag or wind resistance.
  2. Magnetic levitation (maglev) causes each pod to hover. This removed the ground friction of wheels or tires that occurs in other modes of ground transportation. This technology is already being used in high-speed bullet trains. In the image above, the magnets in red are for levitation and propulsion. The magnets in blue are for horizontal stabilization.

    There are two maglev methods currently in development for hyperloop applications. Passive maglev uses a specific configuration of magnets that perpetually create current and keep the pod consistently hovering. No external power is needed. In another design, active maglev combines permanent passive-style magnets with electromagnetics. This makes it possible to adjust the current to smooth out the ride.

Which Companies Are Working on Hyperloop?

Several companies and research labs are working on hyperloop systems or components. Here are four of the biggest players in the industry. 

1. Virgin Hyperloop

Attribution: @virginhyperloop - Twitter

Virgin Hyperloop (formerly Hyperloop One) is one of the best-funded hyperloop projects, giving it the most resources for R&D. It's also leading the pack in patents, and in 2020, it completed the first-ever hyperloop passenger test.

One of its main feasibility studies was how to connect Kansas City and St. Louis, MO, with a hyperloop track along the I-70 corridor. The company is currently designing full-scale pods that would hold 28+ passengers. The final infrastructure would have the ability to move 30,000 passengers an hour.

The company's timeline is to achieve safety certification by 2025 and carry passenger traffic by 2030. This year, the company will start construction on a $500 million Hyperloop Certification Center in West Virginia that will have a mile-long test track.

2. Hyperloop TT

Attribution: @hyperlooptt - Twitter

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies isn't going it alone. The company has teamed up with other partners in construction and infrastructure. Hyperloop TT may not have as much capital as Virgin Hyperloop, but its business model is to have a broader strategy that builds a coalition with existing industries.

Hyperloop TT has a test track in France. It plans to build a hyperloop between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with the track becoming operational by 2023. In the U.S., the company is planning to have an operational hyperloop by 2028, connecting Chicago, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. This route could potentially unify the region's labor market while reinvigorating regional manufacturing because of the ability to quickly transport goods. 

3. SpaceX Elon Musk Hyperloop

Attribution: Engadget - YouTube

Despite Elon Musk having sparked the current hyperloop fervor, Tesla and SpaceX are not doing hyperloop development. Instead, Musk put the challenge out to the world to develop the technology. However, Musk is still involved in the industry. He built a hyperloop test track near SpaceX HQ for student competitions. 

Additionally, Musk's tunnel-digging company could benefit from hyperloop development. The Boring Company could be involved in building underground tunnel infrastructure. Currently, Musk is looking at hyperloop tunnel projects that would connect NYC to Washington, D.C., as well as Los Angeles to San Francisco, and a third tunnel within Texas. 

4. JTC20

Attribution:@zeleros - Twitter

In 2020, a consortium of European and Canadian hyperloop companies became another big player in the industry. Collectively working on the issue of international standardization, this joint technical committee will look at regulation, interoperability, and safety. The group includes Hardt Hyperloop (Netherlands), Hyper Poland, TransPod (Canada), and Zeleros Hyperloop (Spain).

What Are the Safety Risks?

Despite the ambitious progress that's already been made, we are still in the early stage of hyperloop development. Before hyperloop transportation can become a reality, there are clear safety risks to overcome.

  • High speeds: The first hyperloop passenger test reached a top speed of 107 mph in 6.25 seconds. We still don't know the effect that extreme acceleration within an enclosed chamber will have on the human body. Astronauts train their bodies to handle extreme acceleration, and PBS wondered if the hyperloop experience will be "two minutes of puke city."
  • Collisions within the vacuum tubes: Hyperloop system designs have multiple pods traveling at very high speeds within a single tube. Because the pods are within the braking threshold of one another, there's the risk of a very dangerous collision.
  • Hyperloop pod damage: Obviously, humans need air to live, and the tunnels do not have breathable air. Engineers need to address the safety of a situation when the pod becomes compromised.
  • Tunnel decompression: Because the tunnel is a near-vacuum, a break in the structure would cause it to implode. For example, look at what happens if the air pressure of a railroad tank car vacuum is compromised. The damage is nearly instantaneous. 

These safety concerns just scratch the surface. Engineers will have to plan for all sorts of contingencies like heat expansion, earthquakes, or human error. In particular, California and Missouri are the worst places in the country for earthquakes, making seismic safety a major concern for those two hyperloop routes. 

To reduce some safety concerns, initial hyperloop systems will likely be used for freight and cargo transport. 

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