Richard Branson’s Cargo Speed will ship cargo alongside a passenger service by Virgin Hyperloop One
Whether Elon Musk’s Hyperloop project makes it all the way to market or not, the idea has certainly spread and inspired other builders and would-be operators.

The SpaceX CEO first outlined the idea of sending passenger pods down a vacuum shaft between Los Angeles and San Francisco at 760 miles per hour (1,200 km/h) in 2012. Since then, similar projects have caught fire with players and manufacturers around the world, developments that promise plenty for the composites industries.

Musk revived the 100-year-old “vactrain,” or vacuum-tube train concept, when he unveiled his Hyperloop Alpha that would link the two California cities. In the intervening years, Hyperloop lines have been proposed to connect Dubai and Abu Dhabi; the central European capitals of Bratislava, Vienna and Budapest; as well as urban areas between Mexico City and Guadalajara.
Some of these projects continue to march forward toward realization. The California firm Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) has signed a public-private partnership agreement with Noretheast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) to build a Hyperloop system in the U.S. Great Lakes region. The project will link Cleveland to Chicago in 28 minutes. It currently takes five and one-half hours to drive the distance. A startup called Hyperloop One raised over $100 million in 2016, two years after its founding, from firms including General Electric, and ran an initial test in the Nevada desert that same year. 
 

Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One raised $50 million – apart from Branson’s own investments, which he has not disclosed - and hopes to ship freight in 2020, then passengers in 2021. Virgin unveiled a pod earlier this year that ran at 192 mph and says a levitating version will eventually cruise at 760 mph. The London architect firm of Foster and Partners, which designed the pods, has teamed up with Branson. With Dubai ports operator, DP World, it plans to develop the first intercontinental Hyperloop cargo route through Asia, the Mideast and Europe. The idea is to prove the reliability of the technology initially by shipping cargo. The freight system, to be called DP World Cargospeed, is being designed alongside a passenger service by Virgin Hyperloop One. 
Branson has also announced that he will build a Hyperloop in India, between Pune and Mumbai. “The exciting thing is that Virgin Hyperloop One should be able to be operated in three or four years’ time, so we’re not talking about many years off,” Branson said in a video.

Other companies have similar projects. A Canadian firm, TransPod Hyperloop, has joined with the west-central French city of Limoges to build a three-kilometer test track there.
The idea is also big in the Netherlands. The Dutch University of Delft is a regular competitor at, and has won, Musk’s annual Hyperloop race in California. The Netherlands’ House of Representatives voted unanimously to examine funding a Hyperloop test bed. The proposed grounds would span five kilometers and cost €120 million ($150 million), funded in part from the private sector. Public bodies, such as Dutch Railways and the Port of Rotterdam, have signed a letter to the Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management supporting the proposal.

Though politicians are warming to the idea, the technology – attractive as it may be – is not yet just around the corner. The network is most likely to be built underground, away from populated areas, and the cost of digging hundreds of miles of tunnels, then filling them with depressurized, electrified tubes will not come cheap. Estimates hover at around a staggering $1 billion per mile. 

With this in mind, Elon Musk started The Boring Company, which aims to trim the cost of tunnels by a factor of 10. Though still a lot of money, the new firm won approval from the U.S. State of Maryland to dig a 10-mile tunnel for a Hyperloop chain. Musk also plans for The Boring Company to create a network of tunnels in Los Angeles, traditionally known for its traffic problems.  

Another startup, Arrivo, obtained the green light from the Colorado Department of Transportation to build a $15-million test track in the Denver area.

Momentum continues to build, and one reason is the seductive technology. Friction puts a limit on how fast we can travel. Hyperloops remove both the air and the wheels from the transport system, which both cause friction. A Hyperloop pod rises inside a vacuum tube, and very little force is needed once it reaches top speed. What you get is a friction-free, high-speed and energy-saving travel means. 

Carbon-fiber composites will be key to the new transport system. HTT has developed a new skin material for capsule safety called Vibranium™. Using carbon-fiber and embedded sensors, the firm says its new smart material is eight times stronger than aluminum and 10 times stronger than steel. It transmits critical information on temperature, stability and integrity, all wirelessly and instantly. The firm claims it is also five times lighter than steel and weighs 1.5 times less than aluminum, which reduces the energy output required to propel the capsule.

Growing support may be one reason why Hyperloop projects have managed to attract a broad range of industry leaders worldwide. MunichRE, the world’s largest reinsurance firm, recently confirmed it would be able to insure the system. The risk-management group drew up the first Hyperloop technologies risk report, for both HTT and its technology, and concluded that the technology developed by HTT is feasible and insurable in the medium term.

So far however, no Hyperloop demo has yet delivered on its full promise. It’s still early days, after all. But some observers expect the concept to come to fruition within 10 years. Doubters were rife just five years ago, when HTT was founded. Today however, HTT has built a workforce of over 800 engineers who are working with 40 corporate and university partners. The question now is when Hyperloop will happen - not if. 

SpaceX’s annual Hyperloop competition has been key in giving the new industry momentum, exciting industry, investors, universities and the general public. And the composites and carbon-fiber industries are following these developments closely.

 

Written by Joshua Jampol

Joshua Jampol is an American writer, journalist and broadcaster. He has over 30 years’ experience on a variety of industrial and high-tech topics.er 30 years’ experience writing on a variety of industrial and high-tech topics.

 

Return to US Business Review #4