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The rise of hyperloop - a primer on its potential

Of the different verticals that get attributed to societal and economic progress, the transportation industry could be considered the one that gets the least credence. For instance, industrialization was made possible not just through increased logistical efficiency and the then-technological advancements, but also via railroads and highways that were built specifically to mobilize manufactured goods over large swathes of land. Coal powered container ships, albeit slow, helped transport freight across continents, making international trade easier than ever.

Cities mushroomed at the wake of the new-age progress, as people migrated to urban spaces in search of better living standards and economic prospects. Fast-forward a century, the remnants of the industrial revolution are still visible as cities keep swelling up - globalization leveling out inequalities but leading to issues that are even harder to tackle.

The transportation industry is now mired with a global outpouring against air pollution and carbon emissions. OEMs are leading the charge, by phasing out inefficient vehicle models and turning towards equipment that run on alternative fuels like battery or fuel cells. Regulations like IMO’s 2020 sulfur emission cap and the climate-change battling Paris Agreement are instances where countries are coming together to effect change in the way transportation is done in the future.

Why hyperloop?

Though electrifying vehicles on the road is a tenable solution, it can be argued that it cannot stand alone in combating its emissions nemesis. Hyperloop is exciting not just because of the technology, but because of its ability to disrupt transportation networks that have largely remained the same for over a century.

The concept of hyperloop was first envisioned by Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, as an alternative means of transport to the now-under-construction California High-Speed Rail System, which Musk felt did not do justice to the cost incurred. Hyperloop involves transporting specially constructed pods through tubes in a vacuum medium, which lets the pods hurtle through the tube at speeds close to 760 miles per hour.

Hyperloop finds itself at the intersection of rail and air travel - it is multiple times faster than rail and can carry much larger loads in a single transit than an aircraft could. Though the estimates on the infrastructural cost have been quite high, it is comparable to what the government spends on high-speed rail. For instance, the California high-speed train (HST) network is pegged at around $100 billion, making it one of the most expensive rail projects ever undertaken.

Powering a hyperloop

A hyperloop system is propelled by a linear electric motor, with two primary parts - a stator, that stays still, and a rotor, that moves in a straight line along the length of the stator. The system does not need conventional energy sources like oil or gas, but can work entirely with renewable energy resources like solar and wind, making the system one of the leading proponents to reducing overall carbon emissions from transportation networks.

Musk has suggested layering the hyperloop tube with solar panels, which could help catering to part of its energy needs. Also, hyperloop pods are more efficient when compared to other rail-related forms of transport like MagLev or HST, as the hyperloop does not require energy through the length of its transit, but only across specific portions.

Though the pod is generally assumed to move inside a complete vacuum, it actually does not. The length of the hyperloop tube would make it improbable to maintain a perfect vacuum, and thus a system that relies on absolute vacuum could lead to system shutdowns when there is an accidental air leak. Thus, the system is expected to run with a partial vacuum in low-pressure air.

The pods are not propelled by a difference in air pressure but by two electromagnetic motors. The braking and acceleration are done by a compressor fan present at the front of the capsule, which redirects air to the back. Air bearings beneath the pod allow them to levitate and stay clear of the tube’s surface, which helps in reducing friction - a concept that makes MagLev trains faster than conventional ones.

Making hyperloop a reality

One of the issues that hyperloop faces at this point is the large discrepancy between its theoretical speed and its actual speed on the ground. Though the pods are expected to hurtle at nearly 760 mph, the highest speed achieved till date is around 300 mph - less than half of what was proposed. However, as with nascent technology, consistent investment and a focused workforce in the vertical would help improve speeds to reach its theoretically envisioned limit.

The functionality and operational difficulties apart, raising the project off the ground would require pivotal investments, both from private investors and the government. Startups like Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) are racing against each other in different parts of the world, by building test tracks and scouting for potential regions to construct a fully commercial track on ground.

The hyperloop would essentially be of tremendous use in connecting industrial hotspots, and in drayage between intermodal hubs and ports, which could shave off thousands of trucks from the road thereby reducing emissions and the overall carbon footprint.

For instance, an experimental track is being laid by HTT in Toulouse, France, where the aircraft manufacturing major Airbus is situated. Extension of the track to a French coast could mean that Airbus would end up expediting its equipment shuttling process like never before. A cargo hyperloop project undertaken by Hyperloop One in Dubai is a cargo project that is backed by Dubai Ports, which is expected to help increase the efficiency of the port drayage activities.

Unlike aircrafts, the downtime for hyperloop pods is a fraction of the former, while also requiring far lesser energy to operate. Track laying could be a minor issue, as owing to the speed of travel, the hyperloop pipelines would have to be laid as straight as possible to reduce incessant braking. All the tracks are designed to be safe during earthquakes, with tubes being mounted on piers that allow for slippage through thermal expansion and quakes. Hyperloop's ability to shuttle immense loads at nearly the speed of sound makes it an exciting prospect, and in the words of Ahmed bin Sulayem, the CEO of Dubai Ports World, it is a technology that could deliver freight at “airspeed at the price of transport by land.”

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