THE FUTURE OF TRANSPORATATION : HYPERLOOP

As the clock is ticking, we are constantly witnessing unbelievable but fascinating developments across globe, in almost all the spheres of life. As our inventions, devices and theories develop into resource efficient (in terms of material, method and time) ones, our lives are becoming luxurious and dexterous.

In the course of his busy life, Mohan, along with his 3 teammates planned an international tour to attend an International Conference on the theme “Revolutionising Transportation” in the beautiful state of California which is the most populous U.S. state and the third-largest by area. It is well known that California integrates foods, languages, and traditions from other areas across the country and around the globe due to the heavy migration patterns. While being a socially strong state, it is also considered the origin of the American film industry, the Internet, personal computer and other mind-boggling advancements in the technical field. So, Mohan and his friends already had many reasons to be excited.

As researchers and scholars discussed their opinion in various sessions of the conference, Elon Musk’s Hyperloop proposal was increasingly making rounds in every presentation that the researchers gave. Now for those who aren’t aware of Elon Musk and/or “Hyperloops”, you will get a good knowledge about it in the article.

Figure 1 Depiction of the HYPERLOOP technology Source: https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn%3AANd9GcSeMCCH803_jafQ34ihHP0wse2wQmDV8FuHEOmyIT0tYRxj4MP2

ORIGIN OF HYPERLOOP TECHNOLOGY 

Elon Musk is a billionaire industrialist and the founder of aerospace firm SpaceX and the mind behind TESLA, a highly successful project in the recent years. HYPERLOOP was a result of his nonconformity and alternative to the California High Speed Rail System (a bullet train) which according to Mr. Musk is an expensive and slow option. Elon Musk conceived the idea of HYPERLOOP in 2012. In the following year, Musk set his vision our for a futuristic, high speed transportation system through white paper release. He proposed a system where passenger pods move through a partial vacuum steel tubes; addressing two key factors that slow down conventional vehicles- FRICTION and AIR RESISTENACE.

Though advancement is fast paced and we are developing structures and technologies overnight. Yet in many areas of life, things don’t seem to have changed all that much, out of which transportation (especially in India) is a lamentable example of this menace. The roads are still lined with cars, the skies streaked with airliners.

Hyperloop represents the greatest leap in the transport infrastructure for generations. With passengers sitting in pods that travel at supersonic speeds through pressurized tubes using an electric propulsion and magnetic levitation, the concept promises to slash the journey times between major cities from several hour to a matter of minutes. Whilst it may feel like a science fiction, but hyperloop is now on the verge of becoming a reality very soon.

EVOLUTION OF HYPERLOOPS: EXAMPLES SHOWING DEVELOPMENT AND IMPROVEMENT OF HYPERLOOPS 

Exploring a potential route between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Musk believed that his concept could slash the eight-hour bus ride, four-hour train journey and the convoluted three-hour air journey between the two cities to just 30 minutes.

Figure 2 Hyperloop connecting LA and San Francisco Source: https://eandt.theiet.org/media/3274/hyperloop-test-track.jpg?anchor=center&mode=crop&width=640&height=480&rnd=131376964570000000

Under Musk’s first hyperloop proposal, he suggested that compression fans would move air around the pods to minimise the drag and create “air bearings” beneath, floating them off the surface of the tubes.

Figure 3 Inside view of the tube- HYPERLOOP Source: https://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/12/elon-musk-unveils-plans-for-hyperloop-high-speed-train/

This concept was quite similar to the historical Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s atmospheric railway that ran between Exeter and Plymouth in the UK between the years 1847-48. It is interesting to know that the carriages moved with pressurized air, extracted from pipes than ran between the rails b pumping stations situated almost every 3 miles along the routes, creating a vacuum. But Brunel’s railway was abandoned because of air leakage and mechanical failure and though Musk’s first proposals remained only on paper yet the concept successfully sparked intense interest in this field. Adding to the interest was Musk’s declaration of making “Hyperloop”, an open source project which encouraged others to come together and develop a technology independent of his interference. In the present technology, the tubes offer a low-pressure environment and so the pod is surrounded with a cushion of air that permits the pod to move safely at such high speeds and there is a long way to go. The motivation to produce the best hyperloop system attracted attention and creativity, which led to the formation of several start-ups. Students from across the globe keenly developed various aspects of hyperloop with varying degrees of success.

A beautiful example of this was the Hyperloop Pod Competition announced by SpaceX in 2015. The competition’s goal was to support the development of functional prototypes and encourage innovation by challenging student teams to design and build the best high-speed pod. The first three competitions were held in January 2017, August 2017, and July 2018 and were the first of their kind anywhere in the world.

Figure 4 Hyperloop Pod competition by SpaceX Source: https://www.thenational.ae/image/policy:1.623614:1503916223/image/2017-08-27T230502Z_384382629_RC1596B0C620_RTRMADP_3_SPACEX-HYPERLOOP.JPG?$p=613b513&w=1136&$w=ec52ab9

With the success of the initial initiatives, SpaceX hosted the fourth instalment: the 2019 Hyperloop Pod Competition. And the sole criteria of judgement were high speed with successful deacceleration to prevent crashes.

PERSPECTIVE ABOUT HYPERLOOPS: HYPERLOOPS IN INDIA?

The world is exploring diverse dimensions associated with this remarkable technology and the future of the world is relatable as we talk about hyperloops. Eventually, several large companies started making significant strides in bringing the hyperloop technology into reality. There are now a number of companies working to build the idea and one among them is the Richard Branson-backed Virgin Hyperloop One which aims to do so in India by linking Mumbai and Pune. The proposed link connecting Mumbai and Pune is expected to reduce the current 3.5 hours travel time to under 35 minutes.

Figure 5 Revolutionising Indian transportation Source: https://cms.qz.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/hyperloop-e1564630353983.jpeg?quality=75&strip=all&w=1400

As per the statistics, the two cities witness 75 million passenger journeys between them annually, which is expected to exceed 130 million by 2026. The Hyperloop aims to undertake 150 million passenger trips annually, along with transporting lightweight cargo units.

Figure 6 Hyperloop to connect Mumbai and Pune

Figure 7 Mumbai to Pune under 20 minutes Source: https://trak.in/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Hyperloop-One-Banner-Opt.jpg

 The Mumbai-Pune Hyperloop isn’t the only project in the race. US-based research company Hyperloop Transportation Technology has expressed a proposal to connect Vijayawada and Amaravati in the south-eastern coastal state of Andhra Pradesh and the project has even gone beyond the memorandum stage. Along with alleviating the transportation standards, these projects might prove to be a boon for the Indian economy by generating numerous new jobs in fields like hyperloop component manufacturing and export opportunities. But it is important to understand that Hyperloop’s success in India largely depends on the regulatory structure, engineering issues, land acquisition and safety standards. Technical and socio-economic issues have earlier plagued several infrastructure projects.

This project is pretty much a great compromise between flying and driving but is actually better than driving and flying. This is why the idea of whisking passengers across country at super high speed, in a levitating tube, is pretty cool and quite appealing. Many companies are on the track to achieve their bold ambition of brining hyperloop system into operation by the years 2021-22.

Figure 8 Working of a hyperloop Source: https://www.quora.com/How-will-Elon-Musks-Hyperloop-actually-work

The Magnetic Levitation (MagLev) is a technology that uses two sets of magnets- one to repel the train from the track to move it upwards and the other to move the floating train along the track at considerable speed with reduced friction. This technique is already being used in monorails to lift the passenger pods and move them along their rails.  The low-pressure vacuums sealed environment for the passenger pods to travel through at a significant speed without any air resistance.

ADVANTAGES OF HYPERLOOPS

Like train stations, Hyperloop stations also called portals are planned to be located within the city area for easy links with the exiting transportation systems. This makes hyperloops a better option over airways as airports are usually constructed beyond the city limits with very few accessibility options.

Additionally, the system is very reliable as it doesn’t only save the travel time but also reduces the check-in and security check time with robust network accelerating the pre-travel processes. So, you can enjoy supersonic speed in all the aspects of Hyperloop systems.

Figure 9 How Hyperloop technology is sure to make our life choices easier Source: Wikipedia

The “save time” policy of Hyperloops opens up wide avenue of housing and job opportunities for people which is otherwise constrained because of the “distance” between home to the work location.

So, hyperloop has the ability to completely revolutionise the way we live, work and travel.

The hyperloop system requires very little energy to propel pods through its tubes because there is negligible resistance inside the vacuum tube and this is why the systems could be empowered by renewable technologies such as solar and wind, offering a considerably cleaner and sustainable alternative to air travel. Hyperloop systems are not only acing the advancement but also contributing to sustainable development, which must and should be our prime concern today.

Safety is another important aspect that has been addressed by various companies and researchers dealing with hyperloops. The security against disasters like earthquakes, technical failures and breakouts is offered by using thick steel tubes that are extremely difficult to puncture or break. Also, the tubes are engineered to withstand changes in pressure and air leaks while maintaining their structural integrity and functionality. Auxiliary power boosts are used to direct the pods to other portals, in case of emergencies where air resistance in the tube increases due to a puncture (let say). Elevated and seismically designed pylons are used for hyperloop application which are considerably separated and function independently to avoid major damages.

Almost every possible field of engineering is associated with the hyperloop construction and maintenance including one of the hot topics of research and advancement- Wireless Sensor Networks. The sensor nodes placed on the tubes can be effectively used to continuously sense any flaw/ damage in the structure or functioning of tubes to prevent a major loss.

POSSIBLE CHALLENGES IN IMPLEMENTATION OF HYPERLOOPS

Despite all the fascinating advantages, there are certain challenges which can be called “opportunities” for young engineers and researchers.

There is still no solid evidence of security and disaster management if suppose, an asteroid rip opens the tube or one of the supporting pylons collapses in an earthquake. Though most of the manufacturing companies claim that pod will just slowdown in the face of sudden air resistance but a rapid slowdown may end up in a crash and hence loss of lives.

The second ambiguity expressed by any normal being is in a situation where the pod is near a ruptured tube and flies out because of pressure differences.

Again, the systems have been tested with cargo transpiration and not human beings as such.  So, ensuring safety checks through standards is a very crucial step, which has to be revised with time.

The third concern is about the energy. How much energy will it take to fling those pods up to near-supersonic speeds? Though we have learnt about the use of non-conventional (renewable) energy sources but can we generate and store enough solar power to run all the pods regardless of the location and capacity of pods. We still need to identify measures to serve the constant energy requirements of “hyperloop systems” at various locations.

The final constraint is “investment”, which is expected to be quite high for setting up and running hyperloops in any country. If we go by the reports and statements of various companies that are developing hyperloop systems, the initial investment for such a project looks quite high! To quote examples, Virgin Hyperloop One CEO Rob Lloyd has said it would cost about $10 million to build one mile of two-way track, less than a third of what California is paying for its stuck-in-limbo high speed rail system. Also, Musk’s original paper estimated a hyperloop from Los Angeles to San Francisco would cost $6 billion. This was 5-6 years ago, with the recent trends of technical advancement and economy, we cannot clearly define how much exactly will it cost to maintain a working hyperloop, which requires keeping hundreds of miles of tubes nearly free of air, and won’t until we’re closer to a working system.

Mohan and his friends had a great experience in California and I hope, you, the reader also has an equally good experience knowing about this latest technology as it not only a potential means of transportation but an avenue with great opportunities for the future. Learning about the various implications and possible scope of improvement in the latest trends and upcoming technologies helps you define your goal as a technocrat/researcher in a better way.

CONCLUSION

So, understanding various aspects ranging from technical advancements, material availability, socio-political environment and feasibility help us determine the practical implications of such a system in our country, India. And as the youth of the country, it is our responsibility to think of strategically strong, technically competent and economically equitable resources to make this possibility, a reality.

Though the idea seems far-fetched but considering the industrial progress, significant advances being made by hyperloop companies across globe and current rate of technology adoption in our society, this remarkable transportation system is capable of becoming a part of the very near future.