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Investment in hyperloop routes speeds up

Jørn Madslien

(Credit: Getty Images)
(Credit: Getty Images)

The hyperloop transport idea is gaining momentum – amid growing evidence that it is environmentally sustainable and cost-effective.

South Korea is the latest to invest in the futuristic tech, first suggested by SpaceX and Tesla head Elon Musk in 2013. The aim is to whizz passengers in pressurised pods through low-pressure tubes at near-supersonic speeds of up to 1,290km/h (800mph). 

Eager to drastically cut commuting times, South Korea has just signed a deal with California’s start-up Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) to co-develop a hyperloop line between Seoul and Busan. If it works, the trip that lasts about three hours on a bullet train will take 30 minutes.

The idea would be a green way to travel, as it uses electricity that can be generated from renewable sources, said Shekhar Anand, a research analyst at Markets and Markets. It would use much less energy than high-speed rail, he added, and the cost of infrastructure would be about half of that, too. Pod ticket prices are expected to be low compared with those for aeroplanes or bullet trains, said Anand.

Elsewhere, Dubai, the US, the Czech Republic, China, Indonesia and India are also investing in hyperloop projects. The market is expected to grow at an annual rate of almost 50% from 2022 to reach $6.34 billion by 2026, states a report by Markets and Markets. 

The first commercial hyperloop route could be launched by 2022, offering a 12-minute journey between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.  Hyperloop One firm is working on that project.

Musk identified “a previously unexploited sweet spot that exists in partially evacuated tubes that allow a vehicle to be lifted with air pressure while still travelling with much reduced air resistance,” said James E Moore, director of the transportation engineering programme at the University of Southern California. 

The idea is not entirely new, though. US inventor Alfred Ely Beach attempted something similar in New York in 1869, building a pneumatic subway powered by air pressure from fans. 

But Musk wants to rely on linear induction motors and air compressors rather than fans, to propel pods levitating on air cushions through tubes. He has encouraged other inventors to develop ideas, and even use the SpaceX hyperloop test track. This has led to HTT’s solution, which relies on passive magnetic levitation. It has flat magnetic bars fitted to the pod in a specific pattern, with currents through wire coils in the tube causing it to levitate.

In the US, regulatory hurdles have caused delays to hyperloop projects, so commercial routes are only expected to come on stream from 2023, said Anand – the first one possibly between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. 

The South Korean deal includes co-operation with Hanyang University in Seoul, which started looking into the capsule travel idea in January. The plan is to build a full-scale testbed in the country.

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