Billionaire founder of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk, has been dipping his fingers into another pie, talking quite ambiguously about a notion called a “Hyperloop”, something to replace all bullet trains in the near future. He claims that it would be able to take people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a mere 30 minutes. That sounds like one heck of a piece of kit, but what exactly is it – and how does it work?!
Keeping it Quiet
Musk has been quite quiet about the details of this Hyperloop, not revealing too much information about how it would work or what it would mean for the world. From the few comments that Musk has made regarding the idea, it seems that the Hyperloop would have the ability to double the gate to gate speed of an aircraft travelling the same distance. It would work as a non-scheduled service that has three amazing characteristics – it leaves when you arrive, it never crashes or has accidents and it is immune to weather… whatever that means. In more technical terms, all that Musk has given away to the public is that the Hyperloop is not so much a vacuum tunnel, but more of a combination of a railgun, an air hockey table and a Concorde… interesting to say the least. And sounds like the beginning of teleportation, if you ask us.
What Musk seems to be proposing is some kind of subsonic transport. Some have considered the Hyperloop to be a variation of a Lofstrom Loop, also known as a launch loop. A Lofstrom Loop is a vacuum sheath, thousands of miles long, containing a rotor made of some kind of magnetic material. The rotor is levitated within the sheath via the magnetic field and then rotates the loop at an incredibly high speed. A loop such as this can be used for travel between different points all over the globe incredibly quickly… but Musk has denied that his Hyperloop is anything like this. So if it isn’t one of these and it isn’t a vacuum tunnel, what else could it be?
Concorde, an Air Hockey Table, and a Railgun
Well, if we look at the comparisons made between the Hyperloop and the Concorde, an air hockey table and a railgun, we take away three main attributes: speed, a reduction of sliding friction to almost nothing and the use of electromagnetic fields… so clearly these all combine in some way, shape or form to create the Hyperloop. It seems to be most likely that essentially the Hyperloop is a form of pneumatic transport system (PTS).
This means that the Hyperloop would be a capsule in a closed tube that travels at around 1000 km/h, but that the air in the tube also moves at the same speed, so the capsules are able to move with almost no air drag. This can be achieved simply if the airflow in the tube is subsonic- and this is something that Musk has hinted at in his brief statements. PTS also allows for protection against power failure and a cushioning system with the air around it to prevent crashes, two additional features that Musk has also hinted at when discussing the Hyperloop.
It seems most likely that the Hyperloop will function on a PTS system, although nothing has been confirmed by Musk himself. There will of course be several difficulties encountered in creating such a system, both practical and technical, as well as maybe some political ones too. However, if it all went ahead, it would work quite easily and would not be very expensive either. Musk has stated that he will be releasing finalised plans soon.