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Hyperloop is edging closer to reality

Hyperloop is edging closer to reality
From Engadget - March 8, 2018

There are a handful of companies all competing to be the first to build a fully operational hyperloop. The most notable, and the one that has achieved the most in its relatively short life, is Virgin Hyperloop One. Its biggest accomplishment was using some of the $300 million it has raised to build DevLoop, a 500-meter-long testing environment. Situated in the Nevada desert, DevLoop is the proving ground for the company's maglev-and-pump technology as well as its pod design.

Because DevLoop is just a 500-meter tube, the company can only run the pod at high speeds before a few seconds before the braking kicks in. Yet despite this, the XP-1 test pod has reached speeds of up to 240 miles per hour, boding well for the future of the technology. Hyperloop One had initially planned to extend the tube much farther, but that plan seems to have been put on hold. Instead, the company will build longer test tubes that will, eventually, form part of the first full line.

In the US, the company is looking to connect major metro areas in the northeast, like Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; and Pittsburgh. In the northwest, a route between Cheyenne, Wyoming, through Denver, and down to Pueblo, Colorado, is also being looked at. In the center, a route that would connect Kansas City, Missouri, to St. Louis via Columbia is being examined while further south, the Texas triangle, composed of Dallas, Laredo, Austin and Houston, is also under consideration.

It is likely, however, that the world's first hyperloop will be built outside the US, and India has made a claim to be at the front of the line. Earlier this year, Virgin Hyperloop One signed a deal with the state of Maharashtra to examine if a link between Pune and Mumbai is feasible. Unlike many of the others, however, this deal also includes a commitment to build at least part of a test track along that route. That means there could be a "working" -- albeit short -- hyperloop in operation by 2021.

Around the same time, Virgin Hyperloop One teamed up with Dubai's Road and Transport Authority to show off a concept design for a passenger pod. The design is not necessarily final as much as a "what if" for the wealthy emirate, with a complement of 19 people per pod. Five will sit in a gold-class section while a further 14 will sit in silver class -- although given that most journeys are expected to be around 20 minutes, are different comfort levels really that necessary?

The other big name is Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a crowdsourced enterprise that harnesses volunteer labor. Scientists, engineers, economists and administration staff work for the company in exchange for stock options that will, should HTT become a success, pay off. From a slow start, HTT has now shaken hands on a number of deals to work with local authorities to explore the feasibility of joining cities together.

In February, the company signed an agreement with officials in North Ohio and Illinois to look at ways to connect Cleveland and Chicago. This study, under the name Great Lakes Hyperloop, will be completed by the end of 2018, and from there, the business of raising funds to actually build the thing will begin. HTT has also focused its intentions on routes in South Korea, Indonesia and the Czech Republic.

Beyond various investigations and proposals, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has reached several other milestones. At the start of 2017, the French city of Toulouse handed the outfit 3,000 square meters of space in a new innovation park it was building out of what was once Francazal Airport. It appears that HTT wo not, at least initially, have to pay for the privilege of using the space, although the details of the deal are not public.

And in March 2017, the company announced that it was building its first passenger capsule, which is expected to be finished in early 2018. The actual construction is being handled by Carbures SA, a company that builds structures for the aerospace industry. The pod itself will be 30 meters long and 2.7 meters in diameter, weighing a staggering 20 tons and capable of supporting up to 40 passengers. The company says that the pod will have a top speed of 760 miles per hour -- the theoretical upper limit for hyperloop transit.

Its pod will use Inductrack, a levitation system initially developed by the American government. Inductrack is a form of passive repulsion that was designed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as a way of making maglev systems cheaper. The principles are simple enough: One object that is magnetically charged can repulse other pieces of metal. So rather than super-cooled, power-hungry electromagnets along the track, the Inductrack tech resides only in the pod. If you are curious how that would work, check out our video exploration of the Hendo Hoverboard, which uses the same principles.

There have been missteps, and the company's use of voluntary, as-yet-unpaid labor raises questions over if it is a functioning business. A couple of PR own goals have not helped remedy an impression that HTT is, if not amateur, then an amateurish enterprise. For example, at the end of 2016, the outfit revealed that it had raised more than $100 million, except that was not technically true. Instead, HTT had pulled in $31.8 million in cash -- no mean feat -- and $77 million worth of "in-kind and land value investments."

Of that figure, $26 million were "man-hours and services" while land rights counted for another $22 million. Again, it's a huge achievement to convince people, and governments, to contribute anything of that value to a small company forging ahead in a brand-new industry. But also, there is that faint smell of disingenuousness that lingers over all the proceedings.

Then there was the news that the carbon-fiber composite that was planned to cover HTT's pods would be called Vibranium -- the same name as the fictional Wakandan rare earth metal that is used by Black Panther and Captain America in Marvel's comics. Now HTT has managed to successfully register the trademark in the US, both as Vibranium and Vibranium Skin. But we would imagine that, should it ever be used as a selling point, Disney's well-heeled lawyers will have something to say on the matter.

Musk's involvement in hyperloop was never meant to be more than pushing the idea out into the world and stepping back. He was, in his own words, too busy with SpaceX and Tesla to become involved with the concept. SpaceX, however, would remain on hand as a neutral arbiter, with its own tube that can be, and is, used for student pod-design competitions.

However, Musk's position began to change last year, when he tweeted that he had sought permission to build a link between Washington, D.C., and New York City. The billionaire never clarified who would be in charge of building the project, although it could be presumed that it would be Hyperloop One. After all, the company was founded by his friend and staffed by former SpaceX employees. Plus, it had a few years' head start.

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