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Elon Musk / SpaceX

What is hyperloop, how does it work and when will it arrive?

From Elon Musk fantasy to engineering reality — here's everything you need to know

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With news that the Richard Branson-backed Hyperloop One will begin construction of its first commercial route in 2019 — then open it to passengers as early as 2021 — here is the GearBrain guide to the hyperloop.

Where did the hyperloop come from, and what was Elon Musk's involvement?

On August 12, 2013 Elon Musk published a 58-page white paper on the website of his rocket manufacturing company, SpaceX. The paper, titled Hyperloop Alpha, detailed plans for what he had previously described as "the fifth mode of transport". Musk, who is CEO of electric car company Tesla, had previously described hyperloop as "a cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table"

Musk's plan — although he said in 2013 he had no free time to build it himself — was for hyperloop to be considered instead of a high-speed railway proposed by the US government to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, a distance of 350 miles. Musk claimed hyperloop would be cheaper to build and faster to operate. Much, much faster.

The white paper claimed passengers would travel through depressurized tubes in pods capable of over 700mph, slightly beyond the speed of sound and comfortably faster than a commercial airliner. Musk's designs and calculations for how hyperloop would work were made freely available for anyone to work with.

How does the hyperloop work?

The speed of conventional trains — and all land based transport — is limited by friction, both against the air ahead and the ground beneath. Hyperloop drastically reduces friction in both of these areas.

First, the tunnels through which it operates have most of their air removed. They are not complete vacuums, but much less air means reduced friction and less energy is required to reach a higher speed. Secondly, Musk's design saw the hyperloop pods, each containing a handful of passengers, held above the ground by a layer of air, similar to how the puck of an air hockey table floats across its surface.

Musk suggested that the power required to remove air from the tunnels and propel the pods along would come from solar panels on the roof of the tunnel. He also claimed that ticket prices for the Los Angeles to San Francisco route would be as low as $20, and the journey would take just 35 minutes

Hyperloop is intended to carry passengers in pods at over 700mphElon Musk / SpaceX

Who is building the hyperloop?

With Musk sitting it out, the early lead in making his hyperloop dreams a reality was fought between Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), both based in the US but with plans to build hyperloop in whichever country will cough up the cash first.

Virgin Hyperloop One

Hyperloop One, now called Virgin Hyperloop One after investment from Richard Branson's company in late-2017, created a video (below) to explain how its system works. Pods are driven along a track which is essentially an electromagnetic motor unwound and laid flat along the floor of the tunnel.

When a current is fed through the track, the pods move forwards, accelerating until they reach a speed where they lift up, like a boat planing along the water, and are guided by magnets. A series of vacuum pumps remove much of the tunnel's air to the point where the atmosphere is similar to being 200,000 feet above sea level. Naturally, the pods will be pressurized like an airplane cabin.

Hyperloop One says its 670mph system will be "automated by the most advanced systems in the world, allowing a safe and efficient journey that is never delayed or overbooked."

The company has been the most forthcoming in regard to planned hyperloop locations. These include several proposed routes across the US, UK, Europe and the Middle East, although none have yet been given the green light for construction to begin. Given its wealth, open space and interest in futuristic technologies like passenger-carrying drones, the United Arab Emirates is a strong candidate for the first hyperloop, which is expected to operate between Dubai and Abu Dhabi early next decade.

Other routes considered by Virgin Hyperloop One include connecting London with Edinburgh, Los Angeles with San Diego, Miami with Orlando, FL, Reno, NV with Las Vegas, and Chicago with Columbus, OH and Pittsburgh, PA.

Hyperloop One has received investment of $245M to date and hopes to begin construction of its first route in 2019, with commercial services starting in 2021.

Hyperloop One plans to begin full-scale testing in 2019Virgin Hyperloop One

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) also launched soon after Musk published his white paper, and although based in the US it has so far made the most progress in Eastern Europe, India and South Korea, where feasibility studies are taking place.

The company's R&D; centre in Toulouse, France is currently working on the first full-scale hyperloop passenger capsule, which it hopes to unveil in early 2018. Much larger than those designed by Musk, each HTT capsule will be 98.5 feet long, 9 feet in diameter, weigh 20 tons and carry between 28 and 40 passengers at up to 760mph.

In a shift from Musk's original plans - and those of Hyperloop One — HTT's system uses passive magnetic levitation to raise its capsules into the air. Similar to how maglev trains work, HTT will place rows of magnets along the track and on the underside of each capsule. Repelling each other, the magnets force the capsule to levitate once it is driven forward by an electric motor.

Once the capsule is levitating and traveling through a tunnel with its air removed (just like those used by Musk and Hyperloop One), HTT claims very little energy is required to sustain speeds of over 700mph.

So far, HTT has agreements with Abu Dhabi, Slovakia and the Czech Republic for potential hyperloop installations.

Arrivo

Established in early 2017 and headed by Hyperloop One cofounder Brogan BamBrogan (real name), Arrivo plans to transport cargo, passengers and cars in a hyperloop system of its own.

The plan is vague for now, but Arrivo hopes to get some aspects of its technology operational in the next three years. Despite increased regulatory complications, the company plans to build a hyperloop system in the US. It isn't yet known if Arrivo will use similar technology to Hyperloop One, HTT, or go its own way.

Elon Musk and SpaceX

Musk said in 2013 that he was too busy to build his own hyperloop, but added the caveat that, if no one has made sufficient progress in the new few years, he might attempt to "make it happen".

In August 2017, seeing what Hyperloop One and HTT had achieved, he decided to have a go for himself. First he founded The Boring Company in late 2016 and began digging a hole in the SpaceX car park. Los Angeles traffic was awful, he tweeted, so why not whisk cars under ground on 125mph electric sleds? Why not indeed, Elon.

An animated video showed how this could work, whizzing Tesla cars through tunnels under LA, accessed via lifts at the side of the road.

Most thought this was just Musk being Musk, digging a hole for a bit of cheap publicity and to maintain his mad genius public persona, But then he tweeted in July something potentially extraordinary. "Just received verbal government approval for The Boring Company to build an underground New York - Philadelphia - Baltimore - Washington DC hyperloop. New York to DC in 29 minutes."

US Congress and official from these cities said Musk did not have approval, while beyond acknowledging "promising conversations" the White House had nothing to add, either. Then an unnamed source told Bloomberg how Musk would be building the entire hyperloop system - not just digging tunnels with The Boring Company. It was also discovered that Musk owned the "Hyperloop" trademark through SpaceX.

Then The Boring Company made an announcement, that it plans to build "low-cost, fast-to-dig tunnels that will house new high-speed transportation systems...Most will be standard pressurized tunnels with electric skates going 125+mph. For long-distance routes in straight lines, such as NY to DC, it will make sense to use pressurized pods in a depressurized tunnel to allow speeds up to approximately 600+mph (AKA Hyperloop)".

Musk clearly wasn't too impressed with the efforts of Hyperloop One and HTT. So he's going to build one of his own.


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