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Hyperloop: the future of sustainable, high-speed transport?

The hyperloop can play a key role in meeting ambitious sustainability targets whilst delivering high-speed journeys. This article will explore the latest hyperloop technology and its potential for greener travel.

The concept of the hyperloop is fairly new. Elon Musk, Tesla‘s CEO, first mentioned it in 2012. In less than a decade, the concept has gained substantial momentum. Nowadays, there are at least eight companies in the world developing the idea. This potentially new mode of transport could serve for both passengers and freight.

Hyperloop technology – beyond high-speed trains

This concept is an evolution of high-speed trains. During such development, two of the main challenges that confront engineers are the rolling friction and air resistance. To avoid these obstacles, the hyperloop would consist of pods encapsulated in a partial-vacuum tube. The low air pressure inside the tube will minimise air resistance dramatically. On the other hand, the rolling friction would be eliminated by providing either a magnetic or air system that will make the pod levitate inside the tube.

Technology that uses a magnetic system to help eliminate friction is already implemented in trains in China and Japan. This technology, called maglev, is still very expensive. For this reason, most concepts of the hyperloop use an air system to eliminate this friction between the pods and tube. Similar to that of an air hockey table, the pods would include a technology that creates a very thin layer of air at the bottom, of around 1 millimetre thick.

Hyperloop pods could reach up to 760mph (1,220km/h). As a result, such systems could not only compete with trains but aeroplanes too. However, it is also thought that it could put passengers under accelerations of 0.5 g, around 2 to 3 times the acceleration of a commercial flight on take-off. There are still many safety aspects to test and prove, with some companies having already started.

The first trials

For example, Virgin Hyperloop One trialled its first passenger trip last November in Nevada, US. Two passengers travelled in the pod the length of the trial track (500m) in 15 seconds, reaching 107mph (172km/h). Virgin Hyperloop One’s former boss Rob Lloyd said in a BBC interview in 2018 that their hyperloop could connect Heathrow and Gatwick – which are 45 miles apart – in only 4 minutes.

Hyperloop at the forefront of sustainability

But there are other key benefits of the hyperloop apart from speed. In fact, the European Commission identified the hyperloop as a ‘game-changing mobility technology’. These were the words used in the Sustainability and Smart Mobility Strategy released at the beginning of last December by the European Commission. The strategy includes plans to meet ambitious sustainability targets, such as reducing transport greenhouse emissions by 90% by the year 2050. This is just one of the targets of the European Green Deal, with hyperloop, drones and other technologies in the mix. Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, said:

‘I believe Virgin Hyperloop can play a strong role in helping to achieve Europe’s sustainability goals by offering a system that has zero direct emissions and will transform the way people travel across the continent.’

With an ultra-efficient electric motor, the hyperloop will be able to carry more people than a train at airline speeds. And best of all, the direct carbon emissions will be zero. In March last year, the US decided to create a framework for the safe development and installation of hyperloop. Shortly after, Virgin Hyperloop opened its first Hyperloop Certification Centre in October.

Is the hyperloop coming to the UK?

Focusing now on the UK, Hyperloop One announced last year three possible routes in the country. The most popular could link London and Edinburgh in just 50 minutes, which is 30 minutes quicker than the current flights. It is still not clear whether these potential projects will become a reality or not. What we know is that the hyperloop has the potential to meet mid-distance travel demand at a speed never seen before, with zero direct emissions. The question then is: who will be the first in making it safe and real?

What do you think about the hyperloop? Will you be up for testing it? Let us know below!

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