Sitting in Los Angeles traffic one day, Elon Musk thought to himself, “There has to be a better way.” And that is when he got the idea for the Hyperloop. Musk made his idea public and challenged the engineering community to build it. What is a Hyperloop, exactly? Think of it as a horizontal elevator that travels at speeds of 700 miles an hour or more.
The Hyperloop will consist of a tube that goes from where you are to where you want to go. As much air as possible is removed from the tube to reduce aerodynamic drag. Instead of wheels and axles that create friction, the passenger pod itself will be suspended within the tube by magnetic levitation, or maglev for short.
Maglev takes advantage of the principal that opposite ends of magnets repel each other. By using magnets that are also superconducters and a lot of electricity, it is possible to generate enough force to lift an entire passenger train weighing hundreds of tons a few inches above a conventional train track and send it hurtling along at speeds of 300 miles per hour or more. Such high speeds are possible because there is almost no friction to overcome.
But, as Albert Einstein taught us, there is no free lunch in physics. The maglev systems in use today in China and Europe consume huge amounts of electricity. If that electricity happens to be generated by burning fossil fuels, the environment impact of moving people quickly from place to place may be negligible. But what if there was a way to levitate things without using megawatts of juice?
At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, physicist Richard Post started experimenting with precisely such a system in 2000. By carefully arranging ordinary bar magnets in a particular way (for technical details, see the description published in Scientific American that year), Post was able to create magnetic levitation that is self powered. That is, just by moving forward, his invention generates enough electricity to maintain the levitation effect. Post, who died in 2015, called his passive levitation invention Inductrack.
Now here is where things get murky. There are now two groups working feverishly to be the first to make the Hyperloop a reality. They have almost the same name, which makes it difficult to tell them apart. One is called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, or HTT. The other is called Hyperloop Technologies Inc, or HTI.
Hyperlool Technologies, Inc is a traditional tech startup with investors and a board that includes former Obama strategist Jim Messina. Hyperloop Transportaton Technologies boasts that it is a solely volunteer and crowd sourced venture. The company says it has talent from NASA, Boeing, Tesla, and SpaceX working among its 480-plus volunteers.
This week, Bibop Gresta, chief operating officer of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, announced his company has licensed Post’s Inductrack technology. “Utilizing a passive levitation system will eliminate the need for power stations along the Hyperloop track, which makes this system the most suitable for the application and will keep construction costs low,” he said in a statement. “From a safety aspect, the system has huge advantages. Levitation occurs purely through movement, therefore if any type of power failure occurs, Hyperloop pods would continue to levitate and only after reaching minimal speeds touch the ground.”
The announcement caused a commotion in the Hyperloop conmunity. Later this week, HTI is planning to to hold a demonstration of its technology for reporters in North Las Vegas. It accuses HTT of trying to steal its thunder. Hyperloop Transportation CEO Dirk Ahlborn responds that he is “not sure about [Hyperloop Technologies, but as for us, my travel schedule and other announcements that are coming over the next couple of weeks determine when we do our releases.” He added, “Personally I think any progress in the technology is positive for us. We started the movement back in 2013 when everybody said it’s not possible, today it’s not a question anymore if, just when.”
If Inductrack truly permits magnetic levitation without costly superconductors and massive amounts of electricity, Elon Musk’s Hyperloop just took a giant leap forward toward reality.
Source: The Verge