What is Hyperloop? Elon Musk’s Alpha Design Release Explained

What is Hyperloop? Elon Musk’s Alpha Design Release Explained
Hyperloop

Last month, serial entrepreneur of PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX fame Elon Musk hinted on Twitter that a new form of transportation was in the works called Hyperloop that could revolutionize high-speed travel. Despite having already shaken up the motor vehicle and space travel sectors, Musk’s Hyperloop would essentially be the first new form of transportation in over a century (after boats, trains, cars, and planes), taking the best aspects of the Concord, a rail gun, and an air hockey table to get people from point A to point B. Today, the next chapter in the Hyperloop story was opened when Musk released the Alpha Design.

While some of the predictions were off, (namely the possibility that it would use forced air pressure in tubes, similar to how we used to send interoffice mail), much of Musk’s design draws from a combination of his own expertise with electric engine and propulsion and refinements on decades of previous tube travel concepts.

The Alpha concept document available here is 57 pages long, and unfortunately the short 5 page “plain english” summary at the front only teases you with few specific details. No need to worry, however, if you’re a frequent traveller keen to know what the future of your travels might look like as I’ve summarized some of the interesting and less technical details below.


Overview

We will be travelling in pods inside of tubes! Not vacuum tubes, however, just reduced pressure tubes that would be equivalent to flying above 150,000 feet altitude.


What Will Hyperloop Look Like?

Two side-by-side steel tubes, elevated about 20 feet in the air on concrete pillars roughly 100 feet apart and covered in solar panels (for sustainability, of course), would travel most of the way down the median of the I5 highway. The genius of this is the total lack of space this would require to build.


The Pods

Pods would carry 28 passengers leaving every 2 minutes (or every 30 seconds during rush hour) for a total of about 840 passengers per hour. The pods would also have detachable luggage carriers at the back.


How Fast, and How?

The all important question. The pod’s top speed would be 760 mph (1220 kph) although it would slow to 300 mph when entering or leaving each destination. Oh, and they would only cost an estimated $1.35 million each. Musk estimated they would need about 40 pods.

Here’s the only part where I’ll get a little technical: The essential idea is that the pods will travel in low pressure tubes on “air bearing skis” (aka 28 tiny upside down air-hockey tables) that would significantly reduce friction. The pod would have a linear electric motor (an uncoiled version of the one in Musk’s Tesla car engines) to launch it into the tube, picking up speed to about 300 mph.

The biggest challenge to overcome of course is the potential for suction to build up in the space between the tube and the capsule (kind of like when you’re pulling a syringe out). To solve this, and generate energy for the air bearing skis, Musk proposes placing an electric turbine at the front to relieve the pressure, powered by batteries.

After the onboard “engine” accelerated the pod out of the city, further linear electro-magnetic motors externally attached to the tubes would do the rest of the acceleration to top speed.


The Hyperloop Craziness

The craziest statistic of the whole project, which Musk doesn’t explain till right near the end, is that the pods are basically cruising for 90% of the journey. The propulsion from the external motors, Musk explains, would only need to be placed about every 70 miles, or roughly 1% of the total distance!


Where Will We See Hyperloops Built?

For starters, his proposal specifically looks at the challenges of designing for the LA-San Fransisco corridor. But more generally, Musk thinks that a transportation system like this is best for cities that are roughly 1500 km apart. After that, supersonic flight he thinks will likely continue to be more efficient. All I have to say, is please bring this to the Canadian Prairies!


The Ever Important Detail: Safety and Security

While Musk has painted a pretty detailed picture of Hyperloop with today’s release, there are still a few issues to be ironed out. From a security standpoint, while Musk envisions a much more fluid terminal system, Hyperloop security is likely to look more akin to that of an airport than a typical train station. From a passenger emergency standpoint, due to the sheer speed of the system, the smartest proposal is actually just to alert the destination and continue on until you get there. Finally, for vehicals moving at such a high speed, both power and pressurization can pose problems. For power-outages, each capsule would carry enough juice to use its onboard motor to get to its destination, and in the event that depressurization occurs, pumps would work to re-pressurize the pods, and it is likely that oxygen masks would fall from the ceiling similar to what would occur on a plane.


All the safety concerns considered, I can’t wait to see a working prototype!

What are your thoughts on Hyperloop so far? Leave us a comment below and let the debate begin.


Photo credit: @ElonMusk; Hyperloop Alpha

Phil Holdsworth
Probably a little too willing to call wherever his bag and pillow are home, Phil has explored the world, from his home bases in England and Canada, to communities across East and Southern Africa. Whether it’s a gadget or an app to improve and enhance your travels, or insider information on how to experience something off the beaten path, Phil’s the one searching it out. The last time he went to Africa, he had a data plan before he knew where he was staying.

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