May 11, 2016

I think the most enduring and beneficial technology is evolutionary and not necessarily revolutionary.

The concept of “additive” manufacturing, specifically Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), began in a humble fashion. Carl Deckard and Joe Beaman, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, began work in 1989 while Deckard was working on his Master’s Degree and later on his PhD.  Today, “additive” manufacturing is a multi-million dollar business with immense possibilities.

Henry Ford’s model “T” came long before the sleek Lamborghini.

Wilber and Orville struggled for years to design, produce and fly their bi-wing marvel. The evolutionary result is the Lockheed/Martin F-35, the Lockheed/Martin F-22 Raptor, the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Boeing 777, the Airbus 380 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

A newly employed engineer for Texas Instruments (TI) named Jack Kirby recorded his initial idea for integrated circuits in July of 1958.  The concept was successfully demonstrated on 12 September 1958.  Kirby won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000.  Rest is history.

Tetris, Wii, Minecraft, Super Mario Brothers had their start in October 1958 when a physicist named William Higinbotham created what is thought to be the first  video game.  It was a very simple tennis game similar to the classic 1970 came of Pong.

You get the picture—you know where I’m going.  Technology is, for the most part, a process that evolves as need arises.  I want to take a look at a fascinating, new technology now being called “Hyperloop”.


The Hyperloop is a conceptual high-speed transportation system originally put forward by entrepreneur Elon Musk.  The concept incorporates reduced-pressure tubes in which pressurized capsules ride on an air cushion driven by linear induction motors and air compressors.  If you look at the digital photograph below you will see the proposed speed is around 760 miles per hour. (Faster than a 57 Chevy!) Please note also the comparison in miles per hour with other transportation systems.  The only faster passenger mode of transportation is the now-retired Concord.

The Hyperloop is a very high speed, inter-city transportation system conveying passengers and cargo with a yearly projected target capacity of fifteen (15) million passengers.  Mr. Musk envisioned the system as an alternative to the California High-Speed Rail project, thus taking direct aim at the California plan for a sixty-nine (69) billion dollar high-speed train.  Musk said the Hyperloop system would cost merely six ($6) billion and move people between San Francisco and Los Angeles in about half an hour rather than three hours.

Hyperloop Concept

A picture of the passenger pod is given as follows:


Passenger Pod

The climate controlled capsule travels inside of a reinforced ‘tube’ pathway, rendering the Hyperloop Transportation System weather independent and earthquake safe thanks to the use of pylons.

The futuristic transit system would consist of low-pressure steel tubes with aluminum capsules or pods supported on a cushion of air.  The tubes, which would be outfitted with solar panels for power, would be built on elevated tracks alongside Interstate 5 in California.  The entire structure would be elevated as much as one hundred feet above intended routes.

The concept is further demonstrated with the digitals that follow.

Concept and Elevations

Concept and Route


From late 2012 until August 2013, an informal group of engineers at both Tesla and SpaceX worked on the conceptual foundation and modeling of Hyperloop, allocating full-time effort toward the end.   An early design for the system was then published in a white paper posted to the Tesla and SpaceX blogs.   The permanent team is shown in the JPEG below.  As you can see, the team is now in place and working to test the theories and operating principals.

In December 2015, the company announced plans to begin testing on an open-air track in Nevada beginning in January 2016, with hopes of reaching speeds of 700 mph (1,100 km/h) by the end of the year.  Hyperloop Technologies or HT, procured fifty (50) acres of land and fabricated tube sections in order to build a test track in the Nevada desert. The test track is approximately 0.62 mi (1 km). The initial testing explores the ability of the company’s linear electric motor to accelerate the test vehicle to 335 mph (539 km/h). Thereafter the company plans to construct a full-scale 1.9 mi (3 km) test track where levitated pods will pass through low-friction tubes. The first test was very successful and occurred on 10 May 2016. In other words, today.

The Hyperloop Team


First, let’s talk about air. If you travel quickly, air piles up in front of you. The faster you go, the more the air piles up in front and the more resistance develops. This means you have to push even harder. And it’s not what we physicists call a “linear effect”. The faster you go, the worse it is. Bumping up your speed from 10 MPH to 20 MPH doesn’t take nearly as much effort as bumping it up from 110 MPH to 120 MPH. It’s why railway cars like the ones on the Shinkansen in Japan are so streamlined: to help the air flow over them and reduce how much piles up in front.

The second problem you get with high-speed transport is friction between you and the road, where “road” can be an actual road or rails or cushiony magnetic field. Steel wheels on rails produce a lot of friction and heating. Maglev trains get around that by having the trains float on a magnetic field. There are magnets in the track and magnets in the train that repel each other.

The biggest issues are speed and scale. The Hyperloop was pitched as faster as and cheaper than alternatives like cars and trains, but even small shifts in those numbers can dramatically change how it stacks up. It’s easy to imagine safety concerns limiting Hyperloop speeds to just a fraction of its theoretical top speed or right-of-way issues keeping stations far from urban centers. Would we still be excited about the Hyperloop if a 30-minute trek became a three-hour one?  What if it cost $60 billion instead the promised $6 billion? After enough setbacks, it might not be worth developing the technology at all. Those deployment details are life-or-death issues for the Hyperloop, but as long as the tests are focused on small-scale loops, it’s not clear we’ll ever get answers to them.

Some feel the biggest hurdle isn’t the tech behind Hyperloop; it’s the land rights and every other bureaucratic obstacle that goes along with building enormous infrastructure projects.  I personally feel this may be the biggest problem—red tape associated with the project.  The actual placement of the tubes and the route itself could be in the courts for years, maybe decades. I’m sure there would need to be environmental impact studies associated with selecting the route and this could tie the project to the state and Federal government.  The Fed is basically non-functioning  at this time so delays should and must be expected.   This is the country we live in.


HT is very aggressive and has proposed routes as given below.  As you can see, they intend to criss-cross the country with high speed service.  Very aggressive.

Potential Routes


This IS a project to watch and with today being the first test there is cause to be optimistic.  Let’s wish Mr. Musk and his team the very best of luck.

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