A Future Ride Aboard the 760 MPH Hyperloop
By Bill Moore
The year is 2027 and Elon Musk's dream for a 760 mph transit system has been in operation for 3 years, so let's take a ride into a Hyperloop future.
It's no secret that Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk thinks California's plan to build a high-speed rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco is a really expensively dumb idea. So, yesterday, he offered an alternative that could, if built by someone else, cut the trip between the Golden State's two megacity regions to a mere 35-minutes.
To substantiate his claim that a future Hyperloop transport system would be the next best thing to an actual Star Trek-like, 'beam me up, Scotty,' teleporter, he produced, with help from both his SpaceX and Telsa Motor's engineering teams, no doubt, a 57-page white paper that lays out in some considerable detail how the system would work, what its safeguards would be and what it likely will cost: an estimated $6 billion compared to the $30-or-so billions proposed for the California HSR.
Reading over the paper from my layman's perspective, I didn't see any show-stoppers. Musk and his team seem to have covered most, if not, all of the major concerns I'd certainly have, other than the psychological one of being confined in a 4 ft-wide, capsule with 28 other souls watching an artificial world displayed on a computer monitor hanging above my head as the real landscape flashes past at speeds up to 760 mph.
To help explain how the system works, permit me to take you on a future trip from LA to San Francisco via whatever they call the system in the year 2027.
Welcome to 2027
As originally envisioned back in 2013, when Musk first proposed the scheme, there are two types of transport capsules: one for passengers and one for cars, up to three vehicles per capsule, in which their passengers would ride. Back then an electronic one-way ticket was just $20, but it's now $39. Capsules still depart at 2-minute intervals with this peaking at one every 30 seconds during morning and even rush hours. LA has become a bedroom community for San Francisco and visa versa.
You arrive at the station adjacent to LAX in Los Angeles, which by this time has now been connected to the city's subway system. While national and international air traffic still streams in and out of the airport, the Hyperloop effectively put an end to air shuttle service between the two megacities. They couldn't compete on price, frequency and convenience, not to mention speed.
Having cleared the TSA checkpoint -- and yes, they're still asking you to remove your shoes -- you stuff your backpack into the overhead, while larger luggage items are stowed in compartments in front and behind the passenger cabin, which features Ferrari-like reclining seats to help handle the G-force.
With 23 passengers aboard your capsule, one of forty in the system: 30 for passengers only, 10 for cars. the gullwing doors close automatically. With a quiet hiss, the cabin air is pressurized, and the capsule begins to accelerate at a force of one G. An audible "ohh!" invariably leaves first-timer lips: a mixture of surprise, momentary apprehension and childlike delight as the system's solar-powered linear motors accelerate the capsule to 350 mph as it shots across the LA Basin inside the low-pressure transport tube and starts its climb up the 'Grapevine.'
What distinguishes Hyperloop from other earlier evacuated tube transport proposals is that it doesn't have to be vacuum-sealed. It only has to operate at air pressures less than at sea level, which greatly simplifies the system in terms of both construction and operational costs.
The reason previous systems required a near perfect vacuum was to prevent the build up of air in front of the capsule, which would eventually require huge amounts of energy to overcome.
Instead, in front of the passenger cabin is axial compressor similar to that in a jet engine. It sucks in what air is in the tube and at a ratio of 20:1 directs it out through a series of 'skis' that suspend the 7,700 lbs (3,500 kg) capsule 0.020-0.050 inches (0.5-1.3 mm) away from the tube walls, operating, as Musk put back in 2013, like the puck on an antique air hockey table. The remaining air is exhausted out the back, adding propulsive force, but in practical terms, the capsule glides 99% of the trip. Other than the linear motors to accelerate the capsule and lift it over the mountains, the system requires only the equivalent of 134 hp to keep it moving. Every 70 miles, a short stretch of linear motor gives the capsule a boost. A 5,500 lbs (2,500 kg) lithium battery pack behind the passenger cabin provides 45-minutes of energy to independently power the compressor.
Once your capsule climbs over the mountains with the help of booster linear motors and reaches the central valley, where it parallels the old I-5, its speed accelerates to 760 mph, at least 200 miles an hour faster than the old Boeing 737's that used to ply the same rate on an hourly basis, burning tons of petroleum in the process.
In contrast, the Hyperloop not only produces its own energy from solar arrays mounted on top of the twin parallel tube system that is some 42 feet across and supported on concrete pylons up to 100 ft (30m) in height, but it also generates more energy than it needs. The original Tesla/SpaceX team calculated it would take 21MW (28,000 hp) to run the entire Hyperloop system. The solar array along the length of the 350 miles system can produce, at peak, 57 MW (76,000 hp), which is used to top up system storage batteries at boost stations, and sold into the grid.
As the capsule nears Stockton where it bends almost due west - again eliciting a murmur of surprise at the slight increase in G-force - it begins to slow to 550 MPH, then gradually to 300 mph. Nearing the terminus, below 100 mph, conventional wheels extend and the capsule glides silently into the station.
Once upon a time, we calculated the trip in hours: hours by car, hours by train, hours by plane. Now we calculate it in seconds.
Across the LA Basin to the Grapevine took just 167 seconds. Up and over the Grapevine took you just 268 seconds. Time to the Stockton turn: 1,083 seconds. The coast into San Francisco, another 616 seconds. Total elapsed time: 2,134 seconds or just 35 minutes.
As the capsule comes to a stop and the disembodied voice from the overhead speaker thanks you for using the Hyperloop, the gullwing doors open and you and your fellow passengers step onto the arrival platform. Moments later the capsule moves to the embarkation platform to begin the trip back to LA. You, on the other hand, have to now negotiate the traffic outside the station, where the 2 mile trip to the hotel where your meeting is scheduled will probably take longer than the ride up from LA.
Or you could just rent a bike.
Originally published: 13 Aug 2013
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