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What is the Hyperloop and How Does It Work?

Updated on July 1, 2015
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For decades, northern Ohioans have remained loyal to the Cleveland Browns for two reasons. One, there is a sense of undying loyalty for those horrid colors that goes beyond any natural human understanding. Secondly, because if you want to watch a professional football game – and unless you want to drive an extra hour or two to watch the Detroit Lions, Buffalo Bills, or Cincinnati Bengals lose in an equally horrendous fashion – you’re stuck going to the mistake by the lake to enjoy a good hometown thrashing.

All kidding aside (but not really . . . I’m a Browns die-hard, so I can say that) there are limits to what we do as humans based on our ability to travel. One only has to look at American history and the ‘manifest destiny’ expansion to the west to see how the population shifts along with our ability to travel. When the horse-drawn carriage was the means to a voyage, Americans found themselves fighting the terrain, moving slowly across the unblemished and wild country. By the time the Civil War began, over half of the U.S. population was west of the Appalachian mountains. In the 1800s, trains linked the East coast to the expanding west, allowing Val Kilmer an efficient means to travelling to Tombstone. The automobile, commercially pioneered by the bloodthirsty titan Henry Ford, not only gave hillbillies far and wide something to argue about but also granted the world a means to get from one dying rustbelt town to the next. Shortly thereafter, planes burst into skies, figuratively and also literally, much like the Hindenburg.

With each innovation, changing the world in ways that are all at once awesome and terrible, man found a new means to an end. Moving to Memphis wasn’t so bad because you could drive back up to Washington D.C. in a day. Getting a job in Los Angeles was alright since you could still fly home and see your parents at Christmas. The population of the United States, then, began to shift. Granted, planes, trains, and automobiles aren’t the only reason . . . I would hate to leave out NAFTA, Mexican immigration, the advent of Air Conditioning, the Technology boom in California, the Grapes of Wrath, Southern hospitality, etc. . . . but all those things with wheels and engines helped move us along.

So what happened? The first passenger railway was established in Wales in 1807. In 1910, the Model T was made available to the people. The first commercial flight came four years later in 1914. Then we just sort of stopped. Yes, NASA sent some astronauts into space (to keep this article purely patriotic, I will pretend the Soviet Union never existed) but that didn’t allow us to expand. It didn’t allow for us to move about this world like ants on a merry-go-round. Beyond flight, we’ve stayed – well – grounded. The fastest I can reach the west coast still consists of a five hour trip. In the day and age of 4G networks, 1THz processors, 1Gbps router transfer speeds, and other number/letter combinations that make no sense to most people, five hours is an eternity.

That is why the Hyperloop is not only a cool idea but also a naturally synchronized step with our ever accelerating lives.

The Muskman.
The Muskman.

The Hyperloop

Elon Musk is a man who thinks big but perhaps not bigger than his wallet. A biography of Musk is unnecessary for this article but just in case you’ve never heard of him, he founded a website called X.com which eventually merged with what would become PayPal. In doing so, he made tons of money and started to use his powers for idealistic good instead of commercial evil (or if you’d rather prefer it, idealistic bad?) He has founded SpaceX, through which he would like to create a colony on Mars by 2040, developed Tesla Motors, and has funded SolarCity. All of these are advancements in technology, barely known to most people, and all are being pushed along by one man in the private sector who has a fantastical vision of the future.

But perhaps his most time-appropriate venture, regardless of its economical or structural practicality, is the Hyperloop.

First mentioned in the summer of 2012, the Hyperloop, in its simplest form, is kind of like the tube at the bank drive-thru. A canister, is pushed through a tube from point A to point B. This is not unlike Futurama or any other pulp sci-fi writings of the 1950s that imagined the same concept . . . only minus the Communist robots and sexy amphibian women from Venus. With the Hyperloop, it wouldn’t be cashier’s checks or rolls of quarters being thrown into a vacuum tube but living, breathing people shot into a frictionless chamber, controlled by air and inductive energy.

The proposed path of the world's first and only Hyperloop. With San Francisco only minutes away, now Los Angeles won't have to steal somebody else's football team!
The proposed path of the world's first and only Hyperloop. With San Francisco only minutes away, now Los Angeles won't have to steal somebody else's football team! | Source

The initial Hyperloop concept proposed by Musk would run from Los Angeles to San Francisco, a 382 mile stretch along Interstate 5. Currently, by automobile, this is nearly a six hour trip. By flying commercial, the same trip is cut down to an hour and fifteen minutes (not including the time one enjoys socializing with the local TSA agents and/or waiting for geese to get off of the runway.) The Hyperloop concept, in contrast, will push the pod from LA to San Fran at speeds up to 760 MPH which equates to a thirty-five minute trip. Double the speed of flight. Twelve times the speed of automobile. A true innovation in commuting (sorry Segway.)

Further imagining and unbridled optimism by a separate company called ET3, has a hyperloop concept that travels at 4000 MPH, making it possible to travel from New York City to Los Angeles in 45 minutes. So much for visiting Topeka.

Under the Hood

Average speed equals distance over time. To increase the distance one travels over the same period of time, that person obviously needs more speed. To increase the distance and do it in even less time . . . well, that person needs even more speed than that. Physics in action! Because wheels and tires have friction ‘where the rubber meets the road’ and there is air resistance against the moving object, there are natural limitations when it comes to speed on land. If a person could remove these two elements, they could create a means of transportation far beyond the scope of anything currently available in society, reaching a speed that allows for a greater distance in a shorter period of time.

Enough with the boring stuff. Let’s talk about how the Hyperloop intends to pull it off. As mentioned, air resistance and friction are the major inhibiting factors for land travel (ignoring the physical limitations of commercial engines and vehicle design.) The Hyperloop, in essence, is a tube reaching from point A to point B. A pod is placed inside the tube with a thin layer of air cushioning its outsides, also known as an air bearing. This millimeter thick gap of air is enough to remove any friction between the pod and tube.

This isn’t unlike air bladders that are used to move equipment or large-scale turntables. People sometimes forget that forced air is incredibly powerful – smooth, yet dangerous – like a politician talking on television. A few square inches of forced air can lift hundreds of pounds or more if placed appropriately. In fact, unless you’re trying to lift a 700,000 bur oak tree, chances are air will do the job.

A linear inductive motor . . . is it everything you had hoped for?
A linear inductive motor . . . is it everything you had hoped for?

With no friction, the pod will glide towards its destination with limited force. The Hyperloop, in theory, would utilize linear induction motors which are just like regular motors except, instead of creating a rotational force (which would comically hurtle the people in the pod down the tube, spinning like a bullet) they push along an object. This would be used to speed up or slow down the pod by give an inductive *umph* to the people inside.

Several computer models have been created and tested with varying results. Most find the concept feasible which, when I was 16 years old, I would have killed for even that much of an approval. There are some concerns with the diameter of tube required along with other logistical issues involved with the air flow but I am positive that brighter minds than mine will hash out those details and make a physical build that is up to par with the computational models.

Final Thoughts

Because this is still a concept that is being hashed out by several individuals, there are no real details in terms of cost, availability, or . . . you know, things that matter to the every day person. There are worries about the customer experience of being throttled around at nearly mach 1 speeds, unable to stand up or use a restroom for thirty minutes, and surrounded by the roaring sound of air.

But I reply with a scoff. The first automobile did not ride smooth like a modern day sports car. The roads at the time existed in name only. It took time to perfect it but the reasons not to go forward and build these four-wheeled vehicles were never a consideration. Likewise, even if this Hyperloop concept only goes between two California cities, costs 6 billion dollars, and rattles your brains out – why not take that leap forward? The money isn’t coming out of my pocket and, honestly, I won’t be one of the first riders, anyway so what does it matter?

We’ve been sitting on the industrious achievements of a century ago, reframing and remolding the same thing over and again. A Toyota is a Dodge is a Chevy, no matter how you splice it. Sure, there are selling points for each. For instance, consumer confidence is better for the ones that don’t have faulty airbags. But in the end they all are automobiles that run on gasoline and oil, with the same physical limitations and the same genetics. Isn’t it time we try to push ourselves a little further and make something new? Until anti-gravitational hover crafts are parked in each garage in America, the concept of a mass transit air tube is enough over which to salivate.

If the Hyperloop is feasible and becomes an alternate means of public transportation, would you give it a shot?

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