We all know that in the near future we’ll be traveling around in hyperloop tubes at breakneck speeds, but how is that all going to be possible?
The concept of the hyperloop is quite possibly the most seemingly outlandish idea right now that is getting outrageous funding and being slowly brought into reality. I would guess there is still a sizeable doubt in most people’s minds that the hyperloop will ever come to fruition, but the engineering behind it is rather ingenious – and it could theoretically work.
Elon Musk’s hyperloop idea is one of a tube-like track that facilitates pods inside moving at speeds upwards of 700 mph. The tubes will have a slightly lower pressure than atmospheric to decrease friction and the pods will be propelled by magnetic accelerators. If everything goes to plan, a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles will be shortened to just 35 minutes. There are 3 main aspects of the hyperloop system that we need to focus on in order to analyze it through an engineering lense: the capsule, the tube, and the propulsion system.
Focusing in first on the capsule, it will be quite similar to how an airplane is laid out, at least on the inside. The capsule will be a sealed enclosure for passengers that will be levitated inside the tube using either passive electromagnetic fields or through pressurized air bearings. Passive magnetic levitation uses solid state magnets and a conductive track. Solid state magnets will be mounted on the pods and as the pod moves over the conductive track, an electromagnetic field will be generated, lifting the pod off of the track. The entire system will be self-regulating. If the pod gets too high off of the track, the force weakens and the pod sinks back down. This system will keep the pod centered and friction free while en route. This magnetic system is currently being evaluated as the most probable propulsion method. An air bearing system would require a vacuum be maintained in the tube over long distances, which ultimately has proved too improbable for design implementation.
Tubes will be sealed cylindrical containers with a track mounted inside. The track will be conductive, as mentioned before. The entire tube system will be mounted on stabilized pylons to protect it from seismic loading as well as any other catastrophic loading. Dimensions on the tube size will likely be somewhere in the range of 8 to ten feet with the pods inside being about 7 and a half feet in diameter. After all of the structure and tubing is implemented, it’s actually a rather simple aspect of the design.
Now for the propulsion system. Musk’s original design called for a vacuum fan system that would use pressure differential to propel capsules down the tubes. As different companies started to evaluate this model, it proved to be too difficult and costly to implement on a large scale. The secret to how the current design will move lies in the passive magnetic levitation system. By angling the magnet slightly to create a force that is slightly off kilter, the system will begin moving forward when the electromagnetic track is engaged. Since friction is minimized and the magnetic force only gets stronger with faster movement, the pod will be capable of accelerating up to an estimated 700 mph. With that said, individual passengers will only ever experience an inertial acceleration of .5 g.
The hyperloop’s theory and engineering a slightly outlandish, but also very possible. With the massive effort that is currently being undertaken to bring the technologies needed for a commercial hyperloop into reality, it is highly likely that at least one company in the pursuit will succeed. Who knew that we may one day be traveling like our checks did to the teller at the bank. The future is a little weird, but it’s also going to be rather exciting.