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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Musk Hyperloop intriguing

An image released by Tesla Motors,  is a conceptual design rendering of the Hyperloop passenger transport capsule. Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk on Monday, Aug. 12, 2013 unveiled a concept for a transport system he says would make the nearly 400-mile trip in half the time it takes an airplane. The "Hyperloop" system would use a large tube with capsules inside that would float on air, traveling at over 700 miles per hour. (AP Photo/Tesla Motors)

An image released by Tesla Motors, is a conceptual design rendering of the Hyperloop passenger transport capsule. Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk on Monday, Aug. 12, 2013 unveiled a concept for a transport system he says would make the nearly 400-mile trip in half the time it takes an airplane. The "Hyperloop" system would use a large tube with capsules inside that would float on air, traveling at over 700 miles per hour. (AP Photo/Tesla Motors)

In James Blish’s “A Life for the Stars,” published back in 1962, he describes the adventures of a 16-year-old farm boy, Chris, who leaves Earth on a flying city (Scranton, Pa.) and becomes a galactic vagabond.

In the opening chapter, Chris ventures near the local transportation system, which uses magnetic induction loops to propel its cars.

Robert Heinlein, another famous sci-fi writer, described such a system in his book “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.” In that story, the system was used to fire capsules containing cargo back to the Earth from the Moon.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk probably read those books, just as I did, when he was a youngster.

Now he’d like to see that idea become a reality.

Before you scoff, remember that science fiction writers have been accurately predicting the future for many decades. I have read good descriptions of the Moon’s surface, of the use of satellites for inter-Earth communication, of pocket calculators, of implanted bio-monitors and pharmaceutical devices, and a host of other things that were thought to be fantasy when first proposed.

And Musk has an impressive track record: He co-founded online payment service PayPal, electric luxury carmaker Tesla Motors Inc. and the rocket-building company SpaceX — the first commercial payload company to dock with the International Space Station.

So let’s take a careful look at his Hyperloop proposal before relegating it to the scrap heap.

He’s talking about a system that would probably use a tube — from which most of the air had been removed — in which one or two rails would carry a passenger car.

His cars, carrying 28 passengers each, would be propelled by magnetic coils.

To lessen air resistance, the cars would carry a powerful fan that would suck remaining air from in front of the car and blow it to the rear.

That would make it unnecessary to completely remove air from the tube, a costly proposition.

The cars would either ride on a thin cushion of air, like an air hockey puck, or, possibly on magnetic fields like some train systems.

He thinks the cars could hit 700 mph, near the speed of sound, and that’s about twice as fast as the most advanced trains in the world.

China’s Shangai Maglev Train has been recorded at a top speed of 311 mph, but its actual operating speed is 268 mph. China Railways’ CRH380A, which runs on a more traditional track, has topped out at 302 mph, but routinely runs at 217 mph.

Japan’s famed bullet train, the Shinkansen, tops out at about 275 mph and France’s high-speed train, the TGV, generally runs at about 199 mph,

But the problem in this country is that most existing railroad right-of-ways are continually crossing roads — too often at grade level, which creates all sorts of safety problems.

I think the best way to build a Hyperloop route would be to use the median of Interstate highways. The tubes could be buried in the median, eliminating most crossover problems. That means simply digging a big trench and dropping in pre-cast tube sections, much like running two new parallel sewer lines.

With one fell swoop, that gets rid of many right-of-way problems.

The propulsion would be handled by a series of magnetic loops, through which the cars would run. As each car, with its own magnetic coil, approached a loop, it would be pulled by magnetic force, but as it passed through the loop, the pull would change to a magnetic push, accelerating the car to the next loop.

That system has been used already for a variety of applications, including the new “rail gun” being tested by the Navy.

Controlled by computer software, the cars could gently accelerate to their top speed — just under the speed of sound — and then also be slowed at the station.

Construction costs would be less than a highway or new railroad, simply because land acquisition and right-of-way costs would largely be eliminated.

California is selling $9 billion in bonds for a bullet train between San Diego and San Francisco, which would average only 164 mph.

“When the California ‘high speed’ rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were, too,” Musk says. “How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) — doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars — would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?”

Musk said building a Hyperloop system would cost under $6 billion. His version would be built above ground, roughly following California’s I-5, carrying riders from Los Angeles to San Francisco — 350 miles — in 35 minutes.

In the West, earthquakes need to be considered, while on the East Coast, finding a route would be more difficult due to the higher density of development. Today’s Boston to Washington trains run along tracks that constantly turn and are cut by a myriad of crossings, making true high speed impossible.

Perhaps the tubes could be elevated in the medians?

Regardless, this new idea ought to be carefully considered. It could cut automobile, train and airline traffic — all of which are nearing their expansion limits.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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