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What is the Hyperloop? 

The term “hyperloop” was first used to describe an open-source vactrain (vacuum tube train) design released by the joint team from Tesla and SpaceX. This model for passenger and cargo transportation consists of a tube or a system of sealed tubes with low air pressure; this allows a capsule to travel through them with significantly minimal air resistance or friction.

The Hyperloop could carry people or objects at airline or hypersonic speeds while also being energy efficient compared to existing high-speed rail systems. Implementing the Hyperloop could significantly reduce travel times over shorter distances of about 1500 kilometers (930 miles) compared to train and plane travel. 

What theory is behind how the Hyperloop would work? 

Historically, developments in high-speed rail have been hampered by issues in handling friction and air resistance, which become substantial when vehicles approach high speeds. The concept of the vactrain theoretically removes these obstacles by using trains that magnetically levitate in vacuums or semi-vacuum tubes, allowing them to reach speeds of thousands of kilometers per hour.

The high cost of magnetic levitation (maglev) and the difficulty of maintaining the vacuum over long distances has prevented this type of system from being built for many years. The Hyperloop resembles a vactrain system, but it operates at approximately one millibar (100 Pa) of pressure.

What does it mean for the Hyperloop to be “open source?”

The Hyperloop concept has been explicitly developed with an “open source” design by Elon Musk and SpaceX. Unlike patents, this means that any developer can access the proposed technology as a basis for making their own contributions, thus improving the initial proposal.

Open-source systems are collaborative and focus on developing, improving, and achieving goals rather than on copyright. Based on the initial proposal, several companies and interdisciplinary teams led by students are working to advance the technology. 

What’s the origin of the word Hyperloop?

The concept of the vactrain was first proposed by Robert H. Goddard in 1904. The idea was also described in the 1973 film Genesis II: an elaborate underground rapid transit system called a subshuttle was built to connect cities and continents.

In July 2012, at a PandoDaily event in Santa Monica, California, entrepreneur Elon Musk first mentioned that he was thinking of a concept for a “fifth mode of transportation” and first used the word hyperloop. This hypothetical mode of high-speed transportation would run regardless of the weather, be collision-free, travel at twice the speed of a low-power aircraft, and have enough energy storage for 24-hour operations.

The name Hyperloop was chosen because it would run in a loop. In May 2013, Musk compared the Hyperloop to a “cross between a Concorde, a railgun, and an air hockey table.” Musk anticipates that the more advanced versions will be able to go at hypersonic speeds.

From late 2012 to August 2013, a group of engineers from Tesla and SpaceX worked on the conceptual modeling for the Hyperloop. An early design of the system was posted on the Tesla and SpaceX blogs. It describes the potential design, operation, path, and cost of a Hyperloop system. According to the alpha design, the capsules would gradually accelerate to cruising speed using a linear induction motor and would slide along the track over air bearings through underground or raised tubes with columns above ground level to avoid the dangers of ground-level crossings.

The Hyperloop Alpha concept was first published in August 2013. A route from the Los Angeles Bay Area to the San Francisco Bay Area was proposed and examined; it would approximately follow Interstate 5. An ideal Hyperloop system would be more energy-efficient, quieter, and more autonomous than existing modes of public transit. Musk has also made an open invitation to “see if people can find ways to improve it.”

Starting in August 2013 and still to this day, there has been significant evolution in the open-source design thanks to the contributions of numerous companies and investors attracted to the development of this technology.

What advantages does the Hyperloop offer? 

Thanks to the low-pressure tubes that are hermetically sealed, the drag is very low. This means that the capsules can move through the tubes very efficiently. Hyperloop capsules can be designed to carry passengers or cargo. In either case, they can reach 1200 kilometers per hour, thus exceeding the capacity of high-speed trains and even aircraft. This system could therefore connect the cities of Madrid and Barcelona in just 40 minutes – much faster than the 2 hour and 45 minute route currently offered by today’s high-speed system.

Another great advantage the Hyperloop has to offer is that its low energy usage means it can run exclusively on renewable energies, which would make it a zero-emission mode of transportation.

When will the Hyperloop get here?

If results are achieved as expected, the first hyperloop lines will be deployed in this decade for logistics and passenger transit.

With technical assistance from Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HyperloopTT), Spanish company Ferrovial is working to project and anticipate the impact of Hyperloop on mobility services and infrastructures. Ferrovial wants to work with other actors to identify the threats and opportunities that the system may bring in the near future, given that the Hyperloop is being presented as a mode of transportation that can face many of tomorrow’s challenges (and today’s): speed, economics, environmental sustainability, and broad range.

Fun facts

The first maglev was developed in 1964 and implemented in 1984 in Birmingham, England. It was 600 meters long and could travel at speeds of 42 km/h, but it fell out of use due to reliability problems.

On April 4, 2017, SpaceX was issued the work mark HYPERLOOP for the “high-speed transportation of goods in tubes.” 

According to Musk, a Hyperloop would be useful on Mars. No tubes would be needed because the planet’s atmosphere has about 1% of Earth’s density at sea level. That lower air resistance would make it possible to create a Hyperloop without a tube, just a track.

SpaceX built a subscale runway approximately 1 kilometer long (0.62 miles) for its capsule design competition at its headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Virgin Hyperloop conducted the first test with humans in November 2020.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) was the first Hyperloop company created (founded in 2013); it has a current workforce of more than 800 engineers and professionals around the world.

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