In 2013, Elon Musk started to talk seriously about a technology that the mogul felt, once successful, would revolutionise travel.
What he imagined was a ‘fifth mode of transport’.
Intended for long-distance commute at super speed it would be versatile enough to use for shipping goods and materials.
Energy efficient, environmentally responsible, and operable in all conditions the technology has been trademarked the ‘Hyperloop’ by one of its leading exponents, the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as Space X, the company founded by Musk in 2002.
The design called for an infrastructure that superficially resembles an elevated railway or monorail system. Steel supports carry one long hermetically sealed near airless, tube that runs in a straight line.
Travelling inside this tube is a capsule that levitates via the use of a magnetic field. This technology is called magnetic levitation (Maglev) and enables trains to travel on air and is already being used in China, Japan, France, and England.
Despite concerns over safety and the impact of moving at enormous speeds in a windowless carriage, the Hyperloop has attracted millions of dollars in funds toward research and development.
In January this year, the A&M University in Texas, was host to a Hyperloop competition where more than 1000 students from over 20 countries presented their designs.
Only 30 made it through to the next stage of the competition, and amongst them was a group of students from Melbourne’s RMIT.
“We were the only team left from the Southern Hemisphere,” Project Manager Zac McClelland told Tech Exec.
Called VicHyper they are now building a half scale model to take to the US in a few months and test on a Hyperloop track built by SpaceX with the other finalists from the competition.
“The judges will be looking at the viability of the systems [we and others are utilising].”
McClelland is the team leader of more than a dozen students who make up VicHyper. They are drawn mostly from undergraduate and honours programs in the aerospace and electrical engineering departments at RMIT.
The competition, which was officiated by SpaceX and won by a team from MIT, is based on accelerating the technology McClelland said.
The great virtue of the Hyperloop McClelland argues is that it largely eliminates a major issue that dogs any mode of transport designed to travel at high speed: friction.
“The technology is already here, it’s already been developed, it just needs to be implemented in a different way [to enable the potential of the Hyperloop],” he said.
Hyperloop could actuate levitation of the capsule by using air cushions as well as Maglev, McClelland explains.
The benefit of no drag in the vacuum tube is that the capsule can achieve a desirable velocity, in some estimates, it will be close to the speed of sound without having to use any excess energy.
“So you don’t need to be accelerating all the time,” he said, “once you hit speed you just coast along.”
In Texas, VicHyper won a prize for their unique braking system which can convert kinetic energy into electrical energy.
Too costly and logistically impractical for transcontinental, transatlantic or transpacific travel, McClelland is convinced that the Hyperloop would be an ideal solution as a commuter link between major urban centres, say Melbourne to Sydney.
A big issue, admits McClelland, is expense.
Developers in the USA, are proposing a 30-minute Hyperloop run between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
That is a distance of just under 613 km. Right now the cost involved in completely such a project would reach an estimated $8 billion.
“But in the end [the technology] would still be cheaper than light rail and in the long run, air travel.”
A fast train has been offered as the solution for the LA to San Fran journey at a price tag, some estimates claim, far north of the Hyperloop cost.
Right now, much of the research and development on Hyperloop is focussed on the proof of concept.
However, sceptics of the technology have been dwelling on user experience asking whether the human cost – physiologically, psychologically – is too high a price to pay for supersonic travel, querying the emphasis on speed itself.
“There are companies working on ways [to create a mood for the capsule] where people feel safe in order to make the experience more attractive,” McClelland said.
For instance ‘virtual windows’ on the interior of the capsule would produce ‘scenes’ of the exterior environment, in addition to screens that provide ‘in transit’ entertainment.
McClelland told Tech Exec. that two startups are dominating the race to commercialise the technology.
In May, Hyperloop One made its first public demonstration. A sled (not a tube) levitated on a specially built track in the desert north of Las Vegas. The test took two seconds and the gadget achieved approximately 160 kms an hour in one second and accelerated at a rate of 2 g-forces over a distance of 91 m.
Meanwhile, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, its primary competitor, is pursuing opportunities in Europe and has recently patented a passive levitation system. This will reduce construction costs and relieve operators from security and safety issues as the tube will no longer require an on-site power supply.
Right now, VicHyper is seeking $90,000 to complete this phase of their project, McClelland said. “The funds will go toward completing the half-scale model and getting the team to the USA for the next stage of the competition.”
McClelland believes that the technology will be ready to roll-out within a decade, though critics of Hyperloop believe this to be optimistic for a technology with so much to resolve.
Still, last week the Hyperloop may have made a serious breakthrough.
Hyperloop One announced that they have formed a partnership with the Russian government and the Summa Group. They already have feasibility studies underway in Switzerland, the UK, and Dubai
The new plan is to build a high-speed network for commuters in Moscow’s outlying areas.
The 16 million passengers who live in the greater Moscow area would travel to work at speeds of up to 1287 kms an hour.