By Julian Jaggs, GLOBUS Correspondent
We now traverse the seven seas, soar through the skies, and touch even the stars. What could possibly be next for human transport is a bit of a head-scratcher – it’s all been done, right…? Well, one new form of transportation is currently being developed, and it’s been described by Elon Musk as a “cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table“.
Those who watched Marvel’s Black Panther and were not enraptured by the titular duel between Kill Monger, Michael B. Jordan, and T’Challa played by the late Chadwick Boseman, would have noticed that the hyperloop was utilised to cunning effect. Its magnetic resonance when propelling the pod disrupts the armour of both characters. Or in Godzilla vs Kong (2021), we saw a more grounded and more faithful to source concept of the hyperloop as it was used to transport goods from one side of the country to the next.
What is a hyperloop?
Hyperloops have been in development for several years by various companies and research groups around the globe. Each development of the hyperloop has a slightly different take, but each rendition and individual project shares core similarities regarding a terminal, tube, and pod.
A near-vacuum (a sealed low-pressure system) would exist within the tube to reduce air friction and drag. The pod would float on a frictionless magnetic cushion as an electromagnetic force levitates and propels the pod through the tube. Due to the low-pressure environment within the tube, the transport would be high-speed with low energy consumption. The terminal, much like train or bus stations, simply handles the pod’s arrival and departure.
Such a concept has been around for quite some time.
Science fiction has alluded to similar concepts to the Hyperloop. In his book “Paris in the 20th century”, which presents Paris in August 1960, French novelist Jules Verne touched upon the roots of the hyperloop with a pneumatic system to launch goods and people into high floating tunnels. One of the most similar conceptions of the hyperloop was first depicted by Athelstan Spilhars in the Sunday Funnies ‘Our New Age’ in the July 17, 1965, edition of the Sunday Comic strip.
Far from the confines of literature, vacuum-based transportation has been implemented as early as the 1700s. These modes of transportation took the form of atmospheric railways and vactrains utilising air pressure to provide propulsion for vehicles through a pipe with a partial vacuum and a piston pushing the vehicle in the tube.
It is generally agreed that George Medhurst pioneered the use of compressed air in technology and was perhaps the first to have conceived of and patented an atmospheric railways transportation system in 1799. However, this was never practically implemented. Shortly after, in the 19th century, there was a growth in vacuum-based transportation with individuals such as Henry Pikus, Jacob, and Joseph Samuda. The Pereire brothers in Paris also made headway in the development and utilisation of this transport. One of the most successful examples of this atmospheric railway could be found in the 1840s in the United Kingdom, either in the South Devon Railway or at the London and Croydon Railway, where a track and pumping station facilitated the means for an atmospheric railway line which would further grow.
Several of these early designs would meet technical problems and be abandoned. For example, the mentioned South Devon Railway’s atmospheric transport would find that during the winters of 1847-1848, the leather flap used to seal the traction pipes would fail to close correctly because of frost and rain, thus allowing air into the pipe and reducing the effectiveness of pumping. In effect, these systems could not weather the passing of time and were eventually abandoned as further issues arose.
In 2012 Elon Musk published a white paper that cemented and conceptualised the ‘Hyperloop’ and open-sourced the concept to help bring the Hyperloop from an idea to a reality. This high-speed transportation system was initially suggested to be used to connect cities together, claiming it would be “capable of travelling between Los Angeles and San Francisco in approximately 35 minutes” – which is, indeed, an astonishing feat. In his paper, Musk refers to Robert Goddard, who had conceptualised a form of transportation that utilised some of the Hyperloop’s key components, such as a vacuum-sealed tube and pods. Since Musk’s paper, several companies and programs have focused on developing the Hyperloop, competing with one another. The competitors included: Virgin Hyperloop, TransPod, and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. For a specific example, Virgin Hyperloop began working on its hyperloop in 2016 and, on November 8, 2020, safely transported passengers on a hyperloop in Project Pegasus!
Yet despite heavy development of the hyperloop itself occurring in the west, many of the projected routes remain outside the United States. For example, there are plans to build a hyperloop between Bangkok to Phuket in Thailand by the Canadian start-up TransPod. In Russia, Hyperloop One and the Summa Group have a signed agreement with Moscow to explore building a hyperloop transportation system. And in Dubai, a proposed hyperloop transportation system to connect Dubai to Abu Dhabi, with the expected completion date to be confirmed after feasibility studies are conducted between Hyperloop One and Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority.
Having relied on the proverbial shoulders of giants, what can this technology do for us? And what can it do for the world?
With the rate of consumption, development, and all-around business, many look for ways to cut down unnecessary activities – in a world where every second, much more every minute seems to count, how best would one save time? In the immortal words of Mickey Goldmill portrayed by Burgess Meredith in Rocky 2, “speed’s what we need” – and that is what the hyperloop gives. Imagine a 40-minute trip from a bustling concrete jungle such as Bangkok to the beautiful beaches in Phuket; what was once a 12-hour car journey could now be far more accessible – now, these figures aren’t accurate per se, but the message is evident.
Alongside this, the fact that the hyperloop is projected to run (in the designs of several companies) on electricity and solar energy offers a form of low-energy, long-distance travel. Coupled with its usage as transportation, it could alleviate the massive emissions of the goods-transport sector (such as those of trucks). Once it has been constructed, the ecological impact may be far smaller than any we have seen regarding the operation and construction of a mass transport system because it would rely on tunnels, under- or above- ground. This would mean that, at least from a wildlife aspect, the hyperloop doesn’t raise concerns of animals trying to cross a railway or a road. Virgin Hyperloop One has estimated that international flights that produced 946 million tons of CO2 in 2017, could be reduced by around 60% if certain distances were replaced with hyperloop travel.
The potential financial disposition of these projects hasn’t been cemented as public or private (or a mix of both) – which raises questions about what exactly would be the cost on the consumer end. So, while the technology is well underway, we don’t know about its implementation on any ‘sure’ level. Common sense and the information readily available would wager that such developments could pave the way for more ecologically friendly transport as these hyperloops use electricity. However, it’s unclear how much electricity hyperloops would actually use, as estimations are still quite rough… And the carbon footprint left by creating such a massive system may well outweigh the benefits.
Additionally, we know nothing of the potential damages that the huge-scale tunnelling required by hyperloop systems may raise for the environment, such as threatening ground stability, or perhaps the risk of chemical contamination. Alongside this, due to the nature of technological development behind the hyperloop, Lithium-ion batteries are highlighted as being key to fulfilling the vision of this wholly renewable form of transportation. Yet lithium comes with several environmental challenges, such as how its extraction may cause air contamination and changes to the soil. The environment will always be impacted, but one major question left unanswered is whether the environmental impacts and benefits from the hyperloop will place it in a more favourable light than other forms of contemporary travel.
Could hyperloops really be the future of sustainable travel…?