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INNOVATION| 28.04.2021

Hyperloop, a 19th-century idea to help colonize Mars

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While traveling around the Red Planet remains a distant dream, Hyperloop has become the world’s largest transport project that aims to change the way human beings move around.

There are times when an idea from the past can become the cornerstone of a project that is looking firmly to the future. This is precisely what has happened in the case of Hyperloop, the new transport system being proposed by Elon Musk as an alternative to the standard methods currently employed all over the world.

This high-speed system based on floating capsules, which is derived from the old idea of the atmospheric railway, is still in its formative stages. It is, in other words, still taking the first steps toward becoming a reality. In fact, Elon Musk’s sights are set much farther, his aim being to turn it into a means of transport that will be able to change the current limits of space and time. He believes it will be the best way to move around the surface of Mars once humans have traveled to the Red Planet and established settlements there.

 

Hyperloop: an open project

Aware of the need to involve numerous participants, as was the case with other means of transport in the past – such as rail and even aviation – Elon Musk has made Hyperloop an open project. This is the only way that it can expand and become the fastest and most environmentally friendly means of transport possible.

Researchers and companies around the world have accepted the South African’s challenge and rolled out their own versions of the Hyperloop technology. This may be because it is seen as a clearly viable project or because of the media pulling-power of the founder of Tesla and SpaceX. In any case, this is a very alluring project, which could bring any of these companies the opportunity of competing in what has every chance of becoming a very exciting race.

Companies already starting to make a name for themselves around the world are Virgin Hyperloop One (USA), Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (USA), Hardt Hyperloop (The Netherlands), TransPod (Canada) or Zeleros (Spain), the winner of the competition launched by Elon Musk to find the best prototype design.

They are all experimenting with innovations and technologies developed for other means of transport, which is accelerating the search to find solutions to the challenges that are emerging. A good example of this is the agreement reached by the Spanish company Zeleros with the multinational aerospace manufacturer Airbus, which aims to develop a zero-emission propulsion system for Hyperloop.

The short-term objective

In this kind of research it is very important to define the stages that need to be completed in order to consider that the project has come to a successful conclusion, as many have started out as fantastic ideas that were going to revolutionize the market but never came to fruition.

In the case of Hyperloop, it is in its favor that the fastest mode of transport currently in use is aviation, which is not exactly known for being environmentally friendly. Indeed, if it were ever to come into operation on a global level, it would become the fastest way for humans to get from one side of the planet to the other, but with very few polluting emissions (it has been estimated that greenhouse gases would be reduced by 30 million metric tons in Europe alone).

It could therefore be considered that the short-term objective is to create the first routes (as was the case less than two centuries ago with railroads) and to show that the system works well and provides total safety for passengers thus laying the groundwork for what could be a long process.

It is clear that its success will depend not only on technological developments, but also on other challenges of equal or even greater importance, such as complying with transport regulations applied in each region and having sufficient economic clout. Only in this way will the first phases be completed and medium-term objectives be achieved.

The medium-term objective

In the next phase, therefore, it will be vital to make a qualitative leap in order to consolidate the Hyperloop technology so that it comes to be considered as the fifth mode of transport. This, as has been pointed out, will require the involvement of more companies (private capital) as well as government support from many different countries around the world, since, ultimately, the new system will facilitate communications between their most important cities.

It should be borne in mind that progress will not be made quickly, as new associated services, new infrastructures and innovative business models will need to be developed in order to meet future demand.

The final objective

The final objective, for which it is almost impossible to set a date, will be the completion of a planetary network of tubes through which the capsules would pass at a speed of 1200 km per hour. The concept would be similar to the metro or subway network in many major cities, except that the stops would be hundreds of kilometers away—a distance that would be traveled in just a few minutes.

Also, once Hyperloop had crisscrossed the planet’s surface, it could be used in a hypothetical colonization of Mars — one of Elon Musk’s goals being to travel to the fourth planet in our solar system through his SpaceX project. Of course, on the surface of the red planet, the tubes in which the vacuum is created would not be necessary, and the capsules could move without wind resistance, since there is no atmosphere there.

The benefits Hyperloop would offer

Essentially, if you take into account the advantages that Hyperloop could offer, it is difficult to think that it will not go ahead, given that it could eradicate in one fell swoop some of the worst problems affecting transport today.

 

  • One advantage is that it would be immune to the inclement weather, since the transport system moves through hermetically sealed tubes made out of steel.
  • There would be no collisions, as there is only room in the tube for one “convoy” at a time. Also, once put into operation, artificial intelligence would coordinate the entire operation without giving rise to human error.
  • It would increase traveling speed to 1200 km per hour, which would far exceed the average speed of passenger aircraft, which typically travel at about 800 km per hour. So much so that in Europe alone, 75 million hours would be saved, equivalent to an economic impact of around 1.6 trillion euros.
  • Energy consumption would be low compared to trains, planes, cars or ships and could also be accumulated with the aim of operating continuously, without stopping at any time of night or day.

Dissenting voices

However, Hyperloop also faces detractors and dissenting voices that find it inappropriate for people to travel at such high speeds in sealed capsules that move through completely enclosed steel tubes. They argue that moving so fast using compressed air would not only cause a lot of noise, but would also lead to unwanted vibrations that could be caused by any form of defect in the system. To this we would need to add management costs in the event of breakdowns or accidents, possible terrorist attacks etc.

These are probably similar issues to those that were raised one or two centuries ago when the railroads first began to be used or aircraft first started to crisscross the skies. The challenge, therefore, will be to respond to all these questions with guaranteed solutions so that Hyperloop can achieve the goals set by its promoter Elon Musk.