How Virgin\u2019s Hyperloop Works\u2014and When It Will Become a Reality
On Nov. 8, 2020, the Virgin Hyperloop took its first human passengers for a ride.
“It was probably one of the top two or three most incredible experiences of my life,” said Virgin Hyperloop CEO and co-founder Josh Giegel. “This idea of getting in something that you and the team created that was really just a concept and here it was in the flesh and in steel and carbon fiber and you’re sitting inside of it was really humbling and inspiring.”
Hyperloop was conceived by Elon Musk, who then opened the design up for anyone or any entity that wanted to pursue it. Virgin Hyperloop is one such entity.
The first blast in the Virgin Hyperloop was only 500 meters long at the company’s test center outside Las Vegas. That works out to 1640 feet, more than a quarter mile but less than a half mile—about from the bleach box to halfway through the shut-off area of your local drag strip. In that limited space, during which you have to also slow down and stop, top speed was only 108 mph. But it was still thrilling, as anyone who’s ever made a launch at a drag strip would know.
“You feel a little bit of acceleration, about what you’d feel in a sports car, about 0.6 to 0.7 gs,” said Giegel. “This was actually the first time I was on maglev and it was smooth.”
Maglev—magnetic levitation—is smooth because you are essentially floating on a magnetic field, not connected to anything. You are seated inside a pod that is hung from tracks on the top of a long steel tube and suspended by a magnetic field on the track on the top of the tube. To further reduce resistance, 99.9 percent of the air is sucked out of the tube. As a result, once the electromagnets are charged, the pod moves down the tube. Once a longer tube is constructed, as many of them will be one day between cities and across countries, the Hyperloop can travel at speeds of 670 mph, silently and smoothly, Virgin assures us.
“We’re building for fast, effortless journeys that expand possibilities,” Virgin says on its Hyperloop website. “Our system can propel passenger or cargo pods at speeds of over 1000 km/h. That is 3x faster than high-speed rail and more than 10x faster than traditional rail.”
The US Department of Energy (DOE) put together a primer on maglev technology it:
“Maglev—short for magnetic levitation—trains can trace their roots to technology pioneered at Brookhaven National Laboratory,” says the DOE on its handy page, “How Maglev Works.” “James Powell and Gordon Danby of Brookhaven received the first patent for a magnetically levitated train design in the late 1960s. The idea came to Powell as he sat in a traffic jam, thinking that there must be a better way to travel on land than cars or traditional trains. He dreamed up the idea of using superconducting magnets to levitate a train car.”
Wait, superconducting what?
“Superconducting magnets are electromagnets that are cooled to extreme temperatures during use, which dramatically increases the power of the magnetic field.”
The fundamental idea is fairly simple: Magnets have poles, north and south. Like poles repel and opposite poles attract. Put enough like poles under a train and—whoosh!—off you go. Maglev trains look kind of like conventional trains except that they have repelling magnets under them instead of steel wheels on steel rails. The difference with the Virgin Hyperloop is that hangs its train cars, or pods, from a “rail” attached to the ceiling of an empty tube.
“The first commercially operated high-speed superconducting maglev train opened in Shanghai in 2004,” the Energy Department says, “while others are in operation in Japan and South Korea. In the United States, a number of routes are being explored to connect cities such as Baltimore and Washington, DC.”
While studies are being done for US routes for the first maglev train, the first Virgin Hyperloop tubes will likely appear in India and the Middle East, the latter between Dubai and Abu Dahbi. But right now, all we have is that single 500-meter tube out in the desert by Las Vegas, along with another test tube built by Elon Musk next to his rocket factory in Hawthorne, California. Both sound pretty cool.
“It was just this tremendously interesting experience to be sitting inside of a tube inside of a pod not feeling claustrophobic and not feeling that something was out of the ordinary,” said Giegel. “Have you ever ridden a subway? It’s actually very similar to that where you might not even see out the windows but you don’t feel confined or claustrophobic in any way.”
So what sounds did Giegel hear on his history-making ride?
“There was that kind of whine of an electrical system like an electric vehicle starting, there’s no real mechanical kind of vibration noise, your normal noise, vibration and harshness really wasn’t there,” Giegel said. “I drive a Tesla and it kind of sounded slightly similar but slightly different because we use different frequencies. But other than that, you don’t really hear much.”
As you’ll recall from the movie poster, in space, no one can ear you scream. Not that you’d be screaming, but the near-total lack of atmosphere in the tube means sound doesn’t really have anything through which to propagate. So the tube itself is almost silent.
“It almost sounds like a TIE fighter from Star Wars.”
“Inside that tube at low pressure, sound propagates slightly differently, the amplitude of sound is much, much lower because the pressure is so much lower. We did a test a couple of years ago where you could hear what it sounds like in the tube and it almost sounds like a TIE fighter from Star Wars. Not outside of the tube but outside of the car and inside of the tube. You don’t really hear that inside the vehicle at all. Just a tiny bit of electrical noise.”
It’s a lot of electricity. Enough to levitate a maglev train five inches above the track, according to the US Dept. of Energy. But a Virgin Hyperloop has much closer tolerances.
“The track is just kind of conventional steel, and then the electromagnets that are in the vehicle, there’s about 15 to 20 millimeters, so about half to three quarters of an inch between that and the magnets on the vehicle.”
Nonetheless, there is still room to smooth out the ride even more.
“If you think about it, it’s really part of an active suspension,” said Giegel. “So what is an active suspension doing? If there’s a bump, it basically has to push the whole strut back down. (With the Hyperloop) you didn’t move this kind of mechanical piece. For us, all we’re doing is controlling electrical signals. We can use that gap, and the different forces that exist in that gap (to smooth the ride). The speed with which we can react is much, much, much faster. Think about it. The speed at which an electrical system can react versus a mechanical system. Ours is a couple of orders of magnitude faster.”
And while you might assume that the tube itself would be made of steel, that will not always be the case.
“In some parts of the world, like in India, steel might be cheaper than concrete, but in the Middle East, concrete’s actually cheaper,” Giegel said. “When you look at our projects, about 60-70% of the cost of a project is in the infrastructure itself. You want to be able to use the local conditions to be able to fill it out and whatever configuration is best-suited for that particular region.”
Then there’s the main energy source to make the pods go, and that will be electricity, though where that electricity is sourced could be from anywhere. You could actually make it run using only the solar panels you lay on top of the tube, at least in some regions with a lot of sunlight. In other regions, or if you want to run a lot more pods through the tubes, you’d need supplemental electricity. The more electricity you get, the more pods you can squirt through the tubes.
“The tube could be moving up to the equivalent of a 30-lane highway in terms of passengers,” Giegel said. “And when we look at one of the benefits of that, you’re able to not only electrify that amount of transport, but you’re able to go the speed of a jet plane, you’re able to do that for close to the cost of an electric truck, but moving 10 times as fast. You can do that with a very high-capacity system operating within a very narrow right-of-away. Could you imagine this future world?”
Virgin Hyperloop envisions independent pods that could be programmed to zip off from the main lines into ancillary tubes and reach individual smaller cities.
There are other advantages to the Virgin Hyperloop. It can take turns tighter than something like the California Bullet Train, for instance, all while maintaining less than 0.20 gs and not turning the passengers into Jello brand pudding inside the pods.
“What’s really cool about our system, even though it’s in a tube, instead of only being able to bank at three or five degrees, like trains, we can actually bank closer to 30 to 40 degrees,” Giegel said. “And when you do that, you’re actually feeling maybe 0.5 gs of lateral acceleration, but, because we rotate that pod, you’re only actually feeling a downward pull into your seat, you feel that push into your seat, the same feeling that you do on a plane, but you don’t feel that motion from side-to-side. So what that allows you to do is that even though we’re going at higher speeds we can take tighter turns than a conventional rail can, so we can do all sorts of different things, we can cross steeper hills, take tighter turns, because we take up less right-of-way and have smaller-diameter tunnels, so we’re a lot more adaptable, more flexible.”
The greater flexibility is taken into account when planning routes. While the California Bullet Train has to tunnel through mountains, the Virgin Hyperloop can oftentimes go over and around the mountains, and because it’s going so fast, you don’t lose any time, Giegel said. The Hyperloop will be able to include positive and negative gs in its routing, all staying within prescribed limits for human g-force comfort.
“Think about it: The speed at which an electrical system can react versus a mechanical system. Ours is a couple of orders of magnitude faster.”
Another disadvantage of trains is that they are extremely limited in how steep a grade they can climb.
“One of the reasons a train cannot climb a steep hill is because they want to be really efficient. So their wheels are, for lack of a better word, very slippery. In most trains you can’t do more than about one to two percent of grade. So to get traction to move, you put a lot of weight in the locomotive. And you get a very low rolling resistance, but also you just can’t climb a steep hill. It would be like you trying to walk up a hill on ice. So I can go about five or six times as steep as a conventional rail can which means I don’t have to tunnel as much if I do, I can just climb steeper hills. Most trains can’t do more than about one to two percent of grade.”
It all sounds too good to be true, perhaps, but you have to dream big if you want to produce clean, efficient mass transit.
Giegel thinks it will eliminate any discussion of high-speed trains, whether conventional or maglev.
“I think what makes California High Speed Rail a little bit difficult proposition is it’s an expensive trinket that goes slower than a plane. And so for us, you still want to connect as many places as possible to have maximum utility for the system, but you’ve got a very high speed, very high level of service in these small pods, you’re not waiting more than a minute or two to get off, they go directly to your destination, you’re moving at the speed of an airliner. And the very low energy consumption being electric, very little wear and tear, allows you to charge pretty low ticket prices.”
A study Giegel quoted showed that a ticket on a theoretical Virgin Hyperloop running between Kansas City and St. Louis, a distance of about 250 miles, would cost the same as a half a tank of gas, or between $30 and $40.
So when might the world see these Hyperloops?
“The commercialization, the product innovation, and all that will be wrapping up around the 2025, 2026 time frame,” Giegel said. “Then the question is about where this first project will be, how long will it take to build, is really a determination of when people will be able to start operating the system. There will be multiple projects by the end of the decade around the world.”
Funding will “most likely be some kind of private/public partnership,” Giegel said. Some of the money for US projects was included in the recent $362-billion Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program.
It all sounds too cool, like flying cars, jet packs and robots programmed to laugh at our jokes. The question here is, will this be different? We’ll know by the end of the decade.
Share with us your thoughts on Virgin Hyperloop’s technology and its vision for the future of transportation—and whether you think we’ll actually see these tubes across US anytime soon—in the comments below.
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