02 January 2019

What is Hyperloop?

In simple terms, Hyperloop is the process of transporting passenger or freight pods through a near vacuum tube at airline speeds using electric propulsion and magnetic levitation. Hyperloop represents a massive stride in the future of transport infrastructure, cutting journey times between major cities from hours to a matter of minutes.


The idea of transporting passengers and goods through vacuum tubes is not new. In 1910, Rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard proposed a train that would transport goods and passengers from Boston to New York in just 12 minutes using a vacuum-sealed tube and magnetic levitation. It was never built due to the technological limits of the time; however, that system provides the foundation for the modern world Hyperloop project.

In 1996, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) was established to pursue the idea of a state high-speed rail system. They obtained initial funding in 2010 and construction contracts were awarded in 2013. Construction began in 2015. These events caused business magnate and entrepreneur Elon Musk to reignite his idea of Hyperloop. In 2013, Musk publicly released his initial ideas for a fifth mode of transport to the world. He argued that there is no point in injecting such a huge amount of money into a project like high-speed rail because it only offered a slight increase in speed and efficiency compared to existing modes.

Musk’s initial designs involved a compression fan at the front of the pod that would transfer air around it and form an air cushion below it, providing the force required to lift the pod off the surface of the tubes. This was illustrated in Musk’s Hyperloop Alpha white paper, which was presented to US President Barack Obama in August 2013. This idea showed a resemblance to the patented atmospheric railway developed by the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, also known for his design of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. That project was abandoned after a year in production (1847–1848) because the leather covers used to maintain airtightness within the pipes eventually failed, causing air to leak from the system.

Elon Musk’s initial Hyperloop designs - Image courtesy of SpaceX.

Musk’s initial design aimed to reduce the six-hour car journey and three-hour air travel experience between Los Angeles and San Francisco to just 30 minutes. Costing just under US$6 billion – which is significantly lower than the cost of high-speed rail – Musk’s initial Hyperloop project failed to come into implementation. However, Musk has maintained that his vision for Hyperloop is open-source, encouraging others from around the world to explore the concept independently and develop their own ideas and systems. The potential to transport goods and passengers between cities at airline speeds has triggered a worldwide movement.

Core concept and technical details

Today’s widely accepted Hyperloop system has departed from Elon Musk’s 2012 design. It uses a different system as opposed to compression fans. In essence, the current system is based on three fundamental principles: 1) a near-vacuum tube, 2) magnetic levitation and 3) electromagnetic linear motor propulsion, thus eliminating the requirement for moving parts. The magnetic levitation and linear motor system are very similar to what magnetic levitation (Maglev) trains use in Japan and Germany. The tube features a central “rail” containing the linear motor made up of individual drives. The pod accelerates by changing the frequencies of each drive along the motor. This system, paired with a near vacuum tube, essentially removes the two underlying factors that slow down conventional vehicles today: air resistance and friction. When engineers design a tunnel for conventional vehicles, they must take airflow into consideration. A truck driving through a tunnel uses energy to push the column of air in front of it out of the way; therefore, the tunnel area has to be at least four times the size of the truck itself to allow room for the displaced air to move around it. With Hyperloop, there is no air in the tube (as it’s a vacuum), so immediately that resistance caused by the surrounding air is eliminated.

Why do we need Hyperloop?

To solve current transportation problems

Most people are aware of the current issues with existing transport infrastructure and urban transport as a whole. People face high levels of traffic congestion and long commutes on a daily basis. With rapid population growth and an estimated two billion cars on the world’s roads by 2035, we need an alternative approach.

Sitting in traffic and long journey times both use up valuable time and lower productivity. Limited affordable housing in city centres has forced residents to move further away, effectively increasing commuting times further. Public transport is often inadequate and either over or underused. Overused services suffer from breakdowns, delays and cancellations caused by insufficient funding and resources. Underused services can also suffer from a lack of funds and are often financially unsustainable.

Additionally, it is well known that transport as a whole has a negative effect on the environment and is a primary contributor to global warming. The health and quality of life of residents living in urban areas are damaged by excessive air and noise pollution. With an ever-growing population, energy demand is also increasing. Other issues regarding transport include accidents and safety, land consumption and freight distribution. Simply put, the world needs more sustainable and environmentally friendly modes of transport.

To widen employment and living opportunities

All of the problems cited above are factors as to why the idea of Hyperloop has emerged. The incredible speeds, slashing intercity travel times, people could potentially live in one city – where housing prices are lower – while working in another. The commuting times would still be similar to those today despite working considerably further from home.

Unlike airports, Hyperloop stations, known as “portals,” are intended to be located within inner-city areas with easy links to other transport infrastructure, thus significantly reducing journey times between the station and the final destination. Furthermore, Hyperloop portals are designed to be on a “turn up and go” basis, with fast-tracked check-in times and accelerated, advanced security checks, removing the time wasted by checking in and waiting to board.

Better for the environment

Hyperloop is also, “Faster, cheaper, cleaner,” according to Elon Musk. Hyperloop plans to significantly reduce the release of carbon and methane into the atmosphere through electrification. In early 2017, scientists at the NASA Glenn Research Centre, Cleveland, OH, undertook a conceptual feasibility study for Hyperloop. They concluded that “estimates of energy consumption, passenger throughput, and mission analyses all support Hyperloop as a faster and cheaper alternative to short-haul flights.”

As nine of the top ten busiest flight routes in the world are domestic, incorporating Hyperloop systems between cities could drastically reduce strain on both local airports and the environment. For short air travel routes, it is estimated that Hyperloop could be six times more energy efficient than air travel, as well as being three times as fast as the fastest high-speed rail system, while also removing the lengthy check-in and waiting times.

The reduced friction that the pods encounter mean that they require less energy to propel themselves forward. This could allow the system to be powered by renewables such as wind and solar energy, making it significantly cleaner than air travel.

A safer way to travel

Human error is either a direct or indirect cause of around 94% of vehicle accidents; that’s according to multiple studies from 1979 to 2015. As Hyperloop is an automated system, this will essentially eliminate the potential for human error-causing accidents. In that context, Hyperloop is a safer alternative for those journeys.

HTT’s unveiling of the world’s first full-scale Hyperloop passenger capsule - Image courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.

Hyperloop companies and start-ups

Since Musk’s Alpha white paper was released, there have been several start-up companies developing the technology to create their very own Hyperloop systems. Now, a number of fully-fledged companies are racing to make Hyperloop a part of our reality.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT)

HTT was incorporated in 2013 and have since made significant advancements in their quest for high-speed travel. In 2016, HTT received investments of over US$100 million, and have already signed agreements to develop Hyperloop with a number of countries and regions including Abu Dhabi, France, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, India, Ukraine, China, California and most recently Spain.

Furthermore, in April 2018, HTT began on the construction of the world’s first full-scale Hyperloop system. The 320m closed tube has just been completed at their research and development centre in Toulouse, France. Additionally, HTT has recently revealed the world’s first full-scale passenger capsule, of which they are set to test at their aforementioned R&D centre. A 1km (0.62 miles) system built atop 5.8m pylons is also set to be completed in 2019. HTT has also recently announced the construction of the world’s first commercial Hyperloop system in Abu Dhabi in Q3 2019.

Virgin Hyperloop One

Arguably, a current frontrunner of the sector is Virgin Hyperloop One. Formerly known as Hyperloop One before receiving a significant investment from Sir Richard Branson, the company is aiming to achieve their (perhaps too ambitious) goal of building a full-scale commercial Hyperloop system by 2021. In 2016, Hyperloop One began construction on the world’s first full-scale Hyperloop testing facility in Apex, Nevada; then completed in early 2017. Since then, they’ve successfully completed a number of tests on all of the Hyperloop components such as the tube, pod, levitation, vacuum, control systems and structures, achieving a top speed of 240 mph.

Next: Hyperloop: Shaping the future of transport (part 2)

*Header image is a conceptual image of a HyperloopTT station. Image courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.