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Elon Musk and the Hyperloop

For a while now there have been tantalizing hints that Elon Musk is at it again. His usual way of approaching a problem is to look at an industry, find some fatal flaw in it, fix that flaw and then leave everybody else in the dust, wondering why they didn’t do what he did. He’s one of the most interesting people on the planet at the moment and there isn’t a week that I do not come across some bit of information that re-inforces that view. I’m not a person that will readily admit to being a ‘fan’ of someone but let’s leave it at that I find it hard to not be infected by his devil may care attitude towards all things holy in industry and convention. Recently there has been a lot of buzz regarding the ‘hyperloop’.

The Hyperloop is the code name for his plan to disrupt the transportation industry, and maybe to hedge his bets on Tesla (which attempts to do the same in a less revolutionary way), and because of the lack of details speculation runs rampant about what it could be.

I’ve seen the most fantastic interpretations of the hyperloop name, including space bound filaments kept aloft somehow that people carrying projectiles are fired into (doesn’t anybody think of the children, or the grandmothers) and other science fiction interpretations.

This is my attempt at putting together what it could be taking into account some of the common elements in Tesla, SpaceX and paypal.

One thing Elon Musk doesn’t dabble in is science fiction, he seems to be stuck solidly in the science and engineering departments so I’ll go with ‘make it as simple as possible, but no simpler’ principle. Airborne tunnels don’t have that simplicity component so I’ll happily discard them, they’re almost impossible to construct and they are terribly fragile once they’re up (and taking them down for maintenance would suck).

There are a few facts known from things that Elon has said on the subject:

“Cheaper than high speed rail”

“ground based”

“it leaves when you arrive”

“no rails required”

“It will revolutionize the transportation industry”

“It is not an evacuated tunnel”

That last one really piqued my interest. At first sight says very little, but that depends on how you interpret the sentence and I suspect that Elon may be playing a little practical joke on us here, let’s not forget he knows a thing or two about computers.

You can parse that sentence two ways to get a completely different meaning, depending on where you place your ‘brackets’, but in a spoken sentence these are invisible. So they’re a neat spot for a verbal trick:

It is not (an evacuated tunnel)

and

it is a (not evacuated) tunnel

So, in other words he may be putting the truth out there for everybody to see: it is a tunnel that is explicitly not evacuated.

Which I read to mean that he is saying that it is pressurized. Pressure is a lot easier to maintain than a vacuum is, especially if you’re building long stretches of tubing. A really good vacuum needs a considerable support structure because the atmosphere will happily crush your apparatus. There is also a low limit of how effective you can be (1 atmosphere, to be precise is the upper limit of diference that you can achieve by definition). Then there is the problem that to brace against that atmospheric pressure you have to push outward, which would be annoying because that is exactly where you want you vehicles to run, which means that if you want to make a high speed transportation device using a tunnel based on a vacuum that you’re going to have to make the tunnel double walled, which will greatly increase the cost. So clearly a vacuum would have all kinds of drawbacks and is a non-starter. Then there is the problem of convincing the general public to enter a cart in a tunnel that is evacuated, no way to refresh the air while it is moving and so on. Vacuum: bad idea.

So here is my vision for what ‘hyperloop’ stands for:

If you reverse the picture and you imagine a tunnel that is pressurized then there is a much easier way to make the whole thing work, in fact it would explain one of the two parts of the word ‘hyperloop’, the fact that it apparently is a loop, which means that it is going to recycle some critical component. (the other, the ‘hyper’ bit I assume refers to the maximum speeds attainable by such a system).
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