You might not believe this, but it was less than three years ago when Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] CEO Elon Musk published Hyperloop Alpha, a white paper describing a new, zero-emission way of moving people and cargo around the world at speeds rivaling that of a commercial jet.
Fifty-eight pages in length, the technical white paper laid out a vision of the near future where electrically-powered pods travelled through partially-evacuated tubes at speeds in excess of 500 miles per hour, making the journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes (and assuming faster speeds are possible — and there’s no reason why not New York to Beijing in just 2 hours). Impressive though it was however, Musk said his commitments at Tesla and SpaceX meant he simply didn’t have the time or resources to devote to making Hyperloop a reality.
Consequently, Musk released Hyperloop Alpha as an open-source document, encouraging commercial and academic entities to build on his work and make Hyperloop a commercial reality. Since then, SpaceX (and thereby Musk by proxy) has helped Hyperloop development by holding the Hyperloop Pod Competition, designed primarily to encourage young engineers to develop the technology. Meanwhile, we’ve seen two major key players emerge in the commercial sphere, both eager to become the first to make Hyperloop travel a commercial reality: Hyperloop Tech and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.
Today, just one day before its rival is set to make its own massive Hyperloop announcement, crowd-funded Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) has announced a major new deal with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — a federally-funded research institution — to license Inductrack, a passive repulsion technology that will ensure HTT’s pods are as energy efficient as possible.
What’s passive repulsion, we hear you ask? It’s essentially a technology that makes use of magnets rather than electromagnets to keep two objects apart.
Still confused? Here’s a brief explanation.
Traditional MagLev trains, where the train ‘hovers’ above the track for reduced friction and improved energy efficiency, make use of active electromagnets. These work by passing an electrical current through a series of coiled wires wrapped around a metallic core to create a powerful magnetic field around the electromagnet. That field can either pull an object closer to the coil or, if it has an identical magnetic field to the coil, push it further away (that’s because as you may remember from school, opposite poles attract, while similar poles repel).
Using active repulsion technology has its advantages: it’s easier to control how high the object ‘hovers’ in the air by adjusting the current flowing through the electromagnet. It can also be turned off when not required, meaning there’s no risk of stray magnetic fields attracting metallic debris when not in use.
But active repulsion also uses a lot of energy. The heavier the object, the larger the electromagnet and the larger the current needed to keep the object levitating. It also requires an entire track to be electrified from end to end, with control points along a track’s length to ensure that electromagnets are switched on and off as the train (or in this case Hyperloop pod) passed by.
Which is where passive repulsion comes in. Rather than use electromagnets to cause an object to levitate, it uses powerful magnets instead.
In the case of the Inductrack technology being exclusively licensed by HTT from Livermore National Labs, the magnets are arranged in a so-called Halbach array to ensure that the magnetic field is directed towards the track but not towards the occupants of the pod. At low speed (speeds below 20 mph), the pod doesn’t actually levitate, instead rolling along on what we assume is some form of conventional wheels, but when the pod reaches 20 mph or faster, the movement of the pod over the track-embedded magnets ensures the pod gracefully lifts, achieving full levitation and making speeds in excess of 700 mph possible.
As for the motive power? That, says HTT, is taken care of thanks to powerful linear electric motors. These generate the high-thrust needed to accelerate the near-frictionless pods to unbelievable speeds, taking their power from a compact but powerful on-board battery pack and ensuring that HTT’s Hyperloop system doesn’t need to power entire track sections, only key recharging points or stations.
It’s rather different to Elon Musk’s vision of Hyperloop, where solar panels atop the Hyperloop tube generated the power needed to power both levitation electromagnetics and the powerful linear motors needed to push the capsules to beyond the sound barrier. Yet while it’s different, HTT’s technology path certainly has some advantages. And since the pods will be travelling in sealed chambers of partially-evacuated air, there’s less of the risk usually associated with passive repulsion technology on open tracks.
HTT isn’t the only Hyperloop company making big announcements this week on the future of this exciting new form of transportation. Tomorrow, Hyperloop Tech — a completely different, VC-funded entity that all-too-easily finds itself confused for HTT — will announce a major breakthrough at its engineering test facility north of Las Vegas, Nevada. It’s there that Hyperloop Tech is in the process of building a Hyperloop test track where it will test and refine its own groundbreaking Hyperloop technology with a view to bring it to commercial reality within the next five to ten years.
While Hyperloop Tech is keeping quiet right now on specific details, company CEO Rob Lloyd and company co-founder and CTO Brogan Bambrogan have been busy online, promising that we’ll see a demonstration of full-scale Hyperloop components tomorrow during a live stream event planned for Tuesday evening at 5pm PDT. It will be followed up the next day by another series of presentations, potentially with further demonstrations.
Sadly, Hyperloop Tech has placed a press embargo on tomorrow and Wednesday’s event, so its not yet willing to share what it has planned. But rest assured, we’ll be paying close attention to Hyperloop Tech’s first media event in order to bring you the as much news as we can.
Hyperloop may still be considered a pipe dream by some and an impossibility by others. But in three short years, we’ve seen Hyperloop migrate from theoretical white paper to actual reality. And given the amount of investment we’re seeing in the sector (Hyperloop Tech alone is funded to the tune of nearly $40 million and is hurtling towards its Series B round goal of $80 million) we think one thing is very clear: Hyperloop is here to stay.
And while we’ll admit that Hyperloop as a form of transport may still be decades away from being as ubiquitous as a commercial airliner, we’re quite giddy about the prospect of travelling across the contiguous U.S. from one coast to the other in less time than it takes to navigate I-5 in the busy morning rush hour.
Watch this space.
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