Are we getting closer to travelling at the speed of sound?

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Although the technology has existed for some time, entrepreneur Elon Musk has reignited a case for the viability of Hyperloop – a futuristic way of transporting people through a vacuum tube at maximum speeds of 1200km per hour. This means you could travel from Melbourne to Sydney in 47 minutes. People have experimented with the concept of vacuums for transport since the 1870s, but it’s only now starting to become a reality.

Hyperloop’s economical, environmental and social benefits may just solve our transport woes. But getting enough support to bring it to life as a full-scale mass transportation system is a challenge.

It might just be crazy enough to work

Bipbop Gresta is chief operating officer at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies; the company working to make Musk’s vision a reality. He proclaims that the Hyperloop would be faster and cheaper than other forms of transport, but it would be self sufficient, immune to weather, and completely crowd sourced. In addition, he believes Hyperloop could be an ideal mode of transport in a country like Australia.

Renewable and sustainable

Speaking at PauseFest, Gresta said, ‘It’s completely renewable. Using solar panels on top [of the track] but also a combination of renewable energies. We use wind, regenerative braking, kinetic energy, and in some climates where solar panels are not efficient, we use geo thermal. We’ll create more electricity than we can consume.’ The pylons of the tracks could also generate water by collecting dew, desalinate salt water, and vertical gardens could provide animals with food. There’s also the possibility of building over existing infrastructure to reduce environmental impact.

Ride on time: rain, hail, or earthquake

Beyond reducing the amount of energy required for other forms of transport, the Hyperloop would be protected from the elements and not be subjected to the same disruptions. ‘We have created a system that is able to resist earthquakes. We can resist 37,000 psi. It’s really strong,’ Gresta says. Safety is a primary engineering focus for the team. It will also be run by computer systems, to stop human error transport accidents.

Engineered by everyone

People will be able to earn travel time by undertaking community service, and skilled professionals from around the globe can help create it. Engineers, designers and architects can be paid in company stocks and work remotely to help development. According to Gresta there are 520 scientists from 42 countries working at least 10 hours a week to help create Hyperloop. ‘We have people from NASA, SpaceX, Tesla, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, MIT and Stanford,’ he says.

Carol Boyle Professor of Infrastructure and Engineering Design at Deakin University says, ‘I suspect it’s going to work fairly well. The question is; is it going to work in a social sense? Is it going to be properly funded? Is it going to catch enough political clout?’ Without the support from the wider community, she suggests the Hyperloop could fall victim to the many limitations before it’s even built. ‘Part of the problem is that the public doesn’t have all the information yet,’ Prof. Boyle points out. She says people need to know more about the engineering and the science rather than Musk’s dream.

More dollars than sense?

Although it’s said be cheaper to run, questions remain about the energy and financial costs of building the Hyperloop. Prof. Boyle highlights another great idea that has run into funding problems: the Desertec solar system, which engineers says provide a year’s worth of energy for the globe in just six hours by harvesting solar energy from deserts.

But the team at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is using a more unorthodox method, funding the project through crowdsourcing of expert time, which might help to get the project off the ground.

In the USA and Australia passenger vehicle industries aren’t likely to welcome a change, particularly as self-driving cars are introduced. ‘You’re also dealing with a high powered oil industry that is going to reject it as much as possible,’ Prof. Boyle suggests.

But there’s no stopping progress. A five-mile test Hyperloop has been proposed for Quay Valley, a city halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. This will see if the theory’s possible. Whether it becomes a preferred mode of transport remains to be seen.

Check out Deakin’s Engineering courses to learn more about how engineering is changing the world we live in.

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Professor Carol Boyle
Professor Carol Boyle

Professor of Infrastructure Engineering Design, Deakin University
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