Recently the internet has been alight with news about Elon Musk’s newest invention. Musk, the founder of Space X and co-founder of Tesla, took a coffee break from privatizing space travel to design what he affectionately refers to as a “cross between a Concorde, a rail-gun and an air hockey table.”
Musk released the open-source alpha design of the technological masterpiece in mid-August, but it was only recently I waded into its fifty-eight pages of engineering and math shorthand. Now, having read it, I am pleased to report that the hype is warranted — the Hyperloop seems surprisingly feasible, from both mechanical and financial standpoints.
But what exactly is the Hyperloop? In short, it is a low-pressure tube through which pods travel at speeds of nearly Mach 1 on an almost frictionless surface provided by a cushion of air. Such speeds would shorten the travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco from five and a half hours by car to only thirty-five minutes. Since the Kantrowitz limit — or the top speed law for a given tube-to-pod area ratio — becomes a limiting factor at operational speeds, the pods employ a large fan on the front of each pod to provide a wind break and output for the air pads.
To employ some highly technical jargon, this is a project worth geeking out over.
One would assume that a technological wonder like the Hyperloop would necessitate an outrageous cost, but the projected price tag is rather refreshing. You see, the Hyperloop was designed as a response to another Silicon Valley project: the California High-Speed Rail project, which has a projected cost of $64 billion. Current estimates set the cost of the Hyperloop, by comparison, at $6 billion, or 10 percent the cost of California Rail. Besides its balance-sheet savings, the Hyperloop also boasts complete energy sustainability, and the alpha even hints the system may produce a net gain in energy due to the solar panels that line the top of the tube.
While the economic implications of an innovation as the Hyperloop must still be accompanied by disclaimers about the project’s speculative nature and considerable financial hurdles due to private ownership, hope abounds. Musk stated, “Even though I do not plan to build the Hyperloop, someone will. It’s just too good of an idea,” and he has already been proven right: within the past two weeks, a micro-enterprise website, the JumpStartFund, received Musk’s blessing to crowdsource funding for the creation of the first Hyperloop.
Here in the present, we are not well-positioned to see what the next five or ten years will hold; however, in projects like Musk’s semisonic tube, we may have caught a glimpse.
— Chris Donaldson is a senior studying physics and computer science