Hyperloop: why it can work

The take-away

  • Virgin Hyperloop One and Hyperloop TT are joined by a host of academic and commercial organisations in developing the technology for Hyperloop at the same time.
  • Successful tests have been conducted since last year in the Nevada desert. Other tests are planned in the United Arab Emirates, India and France. A full-scale prototype could become a reality by 2025.

Is it possible to cross France by land from north to south in less than an hour? That is just what the futuristic Hyperloop train aims to do. In 2013, South African-born American business magnate Elon Musk dreamt up a new mode of transport capable of reaching speeds up to 1,200 km/h, thus reducing travel times between major cities. The train would consist of capsules designed to transport passengers or goods, and would run on cushions of air.

Musk summed up his designs in a 57-page white paper, but, busy with his other ventures, offloaded the project for others to develop. The two companies that have made the most progress are Virgin Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (TT), both operating out of the United States. A number of universities are now also pitching in to develop capsules. Given this hive of activity, should we start to believe that Hyperloop could become a reality?

Increasingly advanced technology

Founded in 2013, Hyperloop TT is brimming with some 800 experts from NASA, Boeing, Tesla and research institutes from all over the world. From this solid basis, the company licensed a technology called InducTrack based on “passive magnetic levitation”. The system works with magnets integrated into the train pods and tracks to levitate the train. For propulsion, engineers have opted for an electromagnetic system and on-board rechargeable batteries. Powered as such, Hyperloop TT trains could reach a top speed of 1,223 km/h, says the California-based company.

Meanwhile, Virgin Hyperloop One is currently focusing on developing and testing propulsion and levitation systems. Mario Paolone, Full professor and Chair of the Distributed Electrical Systems Laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), explains that the space between the capsule carrying passengers and the tracks must first be filled. “Will it be with compressed gas cushions, magnetic levitation or just pads or wheels?” he asks. “That’s the key question, along with what propulsion system they choose. In other words, will it be based on gas expansion or electromagnetic propulsion?”

Gabriele Semino, team manager of the German WARR Hyperloop team at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), says that the latest trials using current technology are leaning towards an electromagnetic model. “Elon Musk’s original Hyperloop design called for compressed air levitation,” he says. “But that can be difficult to do in vacuum and most importantly only provides a very small levitation gap, which is in most cases not practical for longer routes. That’s why most of today’s prototypes are moving towards an electromagnetic propulsion system and magnetic levitation”. Mr Paolone believes that a full-scale prototype, with all systems operational, could be possible before 2025.

Testing tubes

Virgin Hyperloop One has been testing its technology in the Nevada desert since 2016.

Successful testing

In the Nevada desert, Virgin Hyperloop One has built a long tube to test the viability, resistance and speed of its revolutionary train. For now, the 8.5-metre long pod can reach a speed of 309 km/h. “We shouldn’t focus on the speed,” Mr Paolone says. “For the time being, going 1,200 km/h is technologically possible, but we need to figure out how capsules can accelerate and safely break, especially in case of contingencies, with passengers inside. A human being cannot be thrust forward, and stopped, in a tube at insane accelerations.” On top of these tests, Virgin Hyperloop One is also working on specific routes in different countries. One project is studying the feasibility of a link between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and another envisions a connection between Mumbai and Pune, in India.

In parallel, Hyperloop TT’s futuristic train will feature 30-metre long capsules, each holding 28 to 40 passengers. The windows would be made by virtual reality companies to offer travellers interactive information or views of the landscape. The company said its system could carry 164,000 passengers a day on a single line. To test its technologies, Hyperloop TT is currently building an initial 320-metre track in Toulouse, expected to be up and running by the end of 2018. At the same time, the company will build another 1-km long test system elevated on pylons. It has also signed a deal with the Chinese group Tongren Transportation & Tourism Investment to build a 10-km long track in Tongren, in China’s Guizhou province.

Universities all in

To step up the development of functional prototypes and encourage student innovation, Virgin Hyperloop One has teamed up with SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space transportation company. The venture is sponsoring a series of competitions to drive university research. The first two competitions took place in January and August 2017, with the single objective of designing the best transport pod.

In July 2018, the third competition focused on maximum speed. Twenty teams from some 30 universities worldwide competed in the challenge. The WARR Hyperloop team from TUM took home the top prize, with a peak speed of 467 km/h. Projects from Technical University of Delft and EPFL came in with 142 km/h and 85 km/h, respectively. “This year there was no ‘pusher’ vehicle to propel the capsules,” Mr Semino says. “So we built a pod focused on electric motors and a light carbon fibre structure. This design proved to be really good for achieving high speeds in the tube”.  

Read here why Hyperloop may not become a reality.



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