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Question Your World: What Exactly is the Hyperloop?

Transportation has been a huge part of humanity. Initially we moved out of Africa and into all corners of the world, then we started to connect locations better by taming animals, building ships, trains, cars, planes, and we’ve even been to the moon! So, it’s no surprise that transportation’s evolution continues on with the unveiling of the Hyperloop. So, what exactly is the Hyperloop? Find out in this week’s Question Your World Radio Report from the Science Museum of Virginia.

Consider for a moment the impact that transportation has had in our lives. Most all of us have at least left the city we live in, most have left the state we live in, a large number have reached the other side of our country, a sizable amount of us have even seen other parts of the world beyond our home in America, and a very small sliver of the population has even ventured off into space! Imagine how different this would be if humanity did not feel compelled to keep trying new means of transportation. The trip from central Virginia to Washington, DC would take so long that we’d be dreaming about the days of belt-way traffic again. 

From taming animals to landing man on the moon, transportation has experienced a series of evolutionary landmark moments. There’s a chance that we’re looking at an important moment before it happens right now. Elon Musk, creator of PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors, has unveiled his vision for the future of mass transportation in California, and perhaps beyond. Musk’s plan is called The Hyperloop

The Hyperloop is a low friction elevated system that would zip passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just 30 minutes. So, how does he plan on doing that? Well, this is a very sophisticated system grown from a very concise and (relatively) simple thought. Basically the idea is to remove anything that could be inefficient or prohibitive to really really really fast yet safe travels. If you have ever experienced an air hockey table then you get most of the seeds for this idea. On this table little pockets of air blow out of the table top, thus always creating a layer of air for the puck to float on. Once you hit the puck it goes flying around because it’s ‘floating’ on the air pockets and not physically riding on the board itself. The point where the puck touches the table has a much higher level of friction than when the puck is floating on the air pockets. So, the same theory is applied to the Hyperloop

An air hockey table is clearly not large enough to hold a train, so imagine a gigantic table that’s been rolled up into a tube. Now we’re on to something! This tube turned tunnel, filled with air-pocket heavy surfaces would hold a series of pods. If the train pods can float on pockets of air then we can remove the limiting speeds that friction creates. Then using a few other methods on the outside of the pod and in the tunnel would help stabilize and propel / push the pods. The detailed plans for the Hyperloop are available for public viewing also. 

Bullet trains were a shock when they were first introduced, but the idea has worked and continues to do so as a normal, established form of high speed mass transportation. The Hyperloop wants to take the bullet trains to the next level, but raising the structures off the ground, to not interfere with the day-to-day world below, remove the friction of the tracks, and establish a quick way to connect areas that are spread over large distances. The new system’s pods would travel at 700 mph and would depart every thirty seconds. Pretty impressive.

Musk has said anyone who wishes to move forward on this $10 billion project is welcome to do so. The plans and mechanical details are made available for anyone that’s interested in creating this system. Once someone steps up to begin construction there will be a 10 year time frame from ground breaking to the first person that can climb aboard and travel at 700 mph to San Fran or LA. To bring the analogy back home, consider going from downtown Richmond, VA to downtown Washington, DC in just 15 minutes. That’s about how long this new system would take. The next evolutionary step in transportation? Perhaps. Stay tuned as details develop.

Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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