Listening to Harj Dhaliwal talk about hyperloop technology, one can understand why some people remain sceptical about the high-speed transit system first proposed by SpaceX founder and Tesla co-founder, Elon Musk. Levitating pods travelling in a depressurised tube at 1,200km/h?
The concept sounds like something taken right out of an Isaac Asimov novel – or the 1960s cartoon show The Jetsons.
“Our vision is to eliminate the barriers of distance and time,” he says, easily bringing to mind the British cult show, Doctor Who, and its alien hero – now heroine – who travels through space and time in a blue spacecraft shaped like a police box.
Remarks about the seemingly far-fetched nature of hyperloop technology are nothing new, nor are references to futuristic works of fiction. Indeed, even Dhaliwal, who is managing director for the Middle East and India at Virgin Hyperloop One, offers one of his own: “Sounds like something from Star Wars, doesn’t it?”
His Star Wars reference notwithstanding, Dhaliwal emphasises that hyperloop is not improbable and that the principles behind the technology are no longer science fiction but science fact.
“The technology behind hyperloop is not new,” he tells Construction Week. “I think there’s [an assumption] that this has all been reinvented, but no. The basic principles of hyperloop have been around for a long time, and those principles are effective.”
Elaborating on what those principles are, he continues: “You have a tube, [and] you evacuate the air out of the tube. You bring the pressure down so it’s almost semi-space. You then have a pod, [which is] a vehicle that you put within the tube. You levitate that vehicle using electromagnetic levitation, and then you propel that vehicle using a linear induction motor or another form of propulsion system.
“That, in essence, is all it is. And that technology has been around for nearly 50, 60, 70 years. So what we are doing now is bringing it into the 21st century, and what we are doing for the first time is bringing all those different [principles] – creating the vacuum, the space conditions, the levitation, the propulsion, the controls, and the pod – and putting them into one system, which we are going to use for hyperloop transportation.”
In his 57-page white paper on hyperloop, published in 2013, Musk posited that the super-fast transport technology would be the answer to the need for “a new mode of transport – a fifth mode after planes, trains, cars, and boats” that is safer, faster, less costly, and more convenient compared to alternatives.
“Short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome [...], the only option for super-fast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment”, wrote Musk.
The paper may have been met with a degree of scepticism by some, with a number of headlines at the time brandishing phrases like ‘sci-fi fantasy’, but the global engineering and scientific community rallied behind the idea, and more than a few of its members responded to Musk’s call to turn the concept into reality, saying he was too busy with Tesla and SpaceX to do it himself.