Concept of transport through a long tube could speed sci-vision into reality
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has dared to dream: his ‘Hyperloop’ train could make serious tracks
An unearthly sounding man called Elon Musk has delivered the world a 57-page document. It details the “Hyperloop”, a magnificent mode of transport to overtake planes, trains, boats and cars. Battling against friction, resistance and other gravitational forces, the invention would transport you speedily by pod within a long tube.
Devised as a traffic solution for California, the Hyperloop would get you from LA to San Francisco in 35 minutes, hurtling along at 760mph.
Two parallel tubes (one for each direction) would sit on earthquake-tolerant pylons every 100ft. With 25 co-passengers per pod, you’d get there in one-quarter of the time and at one-tenth of the cost of the existing high-speed train proposal, slated for 2029 delivery.
The Hyperloop plugs into something primal and imaginative: there is a jet-pack joy to its transit and it comes preloaded with appeal. Why settle for just another track-shackled train? All aboard!
“Musk’s proposal is very clever. The Hyperloop idea, or something similar, has been around for a number of decades but it takes a promoter of proven stature and vision like Musk to highlight its potential to a wider audience,” says Conall Mac Aongusa.
A co-founder of electronic payments solution PayPal, Musk has form. “Hyper” suggests speed, frenzy and the imaginative leap of links, the stepping stones of internet search that lead you to explore unexpected avenues; “loop” suggests the agility of aerial pilots, but also a seductive craziness. Musk has developed electric cars and sells 20,000 of them a year, and SpaceX, a commercial space rocket firm.
“When someone that innovative comes out strongly with a new disruptive idea on transport, people pay attention,” says Mac Aongusa.
At every bus stop, there are running-late fantasists slouched against Lucozade adverts imagining cars that run on spittle, planes made out potato skins and turbo-charged pogo-sticks. How robust is Musk’s concept?
Cushion of air
“Most of his ideas seem sound and don’t appear to go against the laws of physics,” says Bill Reddington of the DIT school of manufacturing and design in Bolton Street. Reddington has steered teams through the manufacture of single-seat racing cars for the Formula Student competition in Silverstone.
“For supersonic speeds, you need to fly very high, where the friction created by air is small. This doesn’t make sense over distances less than 600 miles. The problem is overcoming friction between the vehicle and the mechanism supporting it, be that road or track. Musk’s idea is to reduce this friction by accelerating the train through a pod on a cushion of air.”
Musk betrays a childhood wonder when he describes the Hyperloop as gliding on air like a table-hockey puck. “Ideally the train would be accelerated through a vacuum, but trying to maintain a vacuum over such a long distance where you could get leaks at seals would be impossible,” says Reddington.
“He proposes generating very low pressure within the tube. This low pressure would reduce the friction but, at such high speeds, you would still get a build-up of pressure in front of the train, which would slow it down.”
Think of the pressure within a syringe if the tip was blocked. How would Musk beat this? “By placing a fan on the front of the train and blowing most of it out the back. Some of the air is blown down underneath the train, which helps support it on a cushion of air. The extra air needed to support the pod comes from onboard compressors driven by solar-charged batteries.”