06/10/2016

The Hyperloop: From Pipe Dream to Possible

10:15 minutes

Hyperloop passenger transport capsule conceptual design sketch. Credit: Elon Musk
Hyperloop passenger transport capsule conceptual design sketch. Credit: Elon Musk

It sounds like science fiction: a hyperloop that propels passengers traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles in levitating pods through a nearly airless tube. Their pace rivals the speed of sound. The journey takes only 30 minutes.

According to Brogan BamBrogan, former SpaceX engineer and now chief technology officer for Hyperloop One, however, the hyperloop is not only more than science fiction: it’s close to becoming reality.

In May, startup Hyperloop One demonstrated a public test of its propulsion system, launching a metal sled to 100 miles per hour in just over a second.

Meanwhile, students around the world are submitting prototypes for passenger pods to SpaceX’s design competition, while rival company Hyperloop Transportation Technologies recently unveiled part of their own carbon-fiber pod design.

“There’s no question it can work,” Bambrogan says. “You know, we say many times we could build a Hyperloop today, it would just be very expensive. So our goal is to not just bring this technology to the table, but bring it in a way that’s just drastically cost competitive with every other form of transportation, as well as all the other opportunities that it brings with it: being ultra-fast, ultra-safe … all green, no carbon, fully-sustainable. So all these things are important, but they’re not important if we can’t do it cost effectively.”

Bambrogan’s company has been working on developing all the core technologies that would enable a hyperloop to work: an electric motor, the aero-thermodynamics of a travel pod, a levitation system, power electronics, control systems. They hope by the end of 2016 to come together with a full system test that will allow them to test the technology in the range of 1-2 kilometers. That, however, is just the beginning.

“As our testing continues we’re going to be going farther and faster,” Bambrogan says, “and adding, you know, turns and switching and pressure valves and all the other safety mechanisms that really go into the system.”

The hyperloop is meant to be one of the safest transportation systems ever built.

“It’s a naturally safe system,” Bambrogan says. “Most transportation accidents occur either at grade crossings — which we don’t have, weather events — which we’re mostly immune to, and to operator error — which we’re going to be immune to because we’re a fully autonomous system. So, you take away those three things, that’s over 90 percent of the accidents that happen in transportation. So that’s gone already and then we have some other things that we’re working on certainly, you know, we actually just hired a fantastic director of safety engineering.”

Bambrogan says the hyperloop will operate more like a car than a train.

“We aim to packetize the delivery of certainly people or cargo,” Bambrogan says. “So what that means is, it’s not going to look like a train, it’s going to feel more like a car in terms of, you know, nobody ever arrived at their car early because your car leaves when you want to leave. So as we create kind of small units that are discrete, we can send people exactly when they arrive at the terminals and we also can send them directly to their final destination.”

There are still, however, many engineering challenges HyperLoop One faces, one of them being designing the vacuum system the pods will use to move.

“It’s not a hard vacuum,” Bambrogan says. “Maintaining a hard vacuum like they have at CERN the Super Collider takes a lot of energy and it’s really hard to get that last mile. So we’re kind of operating in what we think is sort of the sweet spot of energy usage where we’re at low pressure — low enough that there’s very little aerodynamic drag, but also, you know, high enough that it’s easy to maintain. Not only to get to but even if there’s leaks or any other things that kind of happen in a robust system. So we really think we kind of are going to be operating in the sweet spot of the vacuum.”

—Elizabeth Shockman (originally published on PRI.org)

Segment Guests

Brogan BamBrogan

Brogan BamBrogan is chief technology officer and co-founder of Hyperloop One. He’s a former engineer for SpaceX, based in Los Angeles, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Some day, could cross-country travel be as simple as riding in a levitating pod through a near vacuum tube at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour? Well, that’s the idea behind the Hyperloop, an ultra fast, ultra efficient concept for mass transportation. SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk first offered up that idea in 2013, and then he left everybody else to build it.

Well, they have begun. One company, Hyperloop One, performed its first public test of a propulsion system last month, getting a metal sled to go over 100 miles per hour in just over one second. How close are we to taking a Hyperloop for our next business trip or vacation or even commute? One of the brains trying to take the technology from pipe dream to working system is here.

My guest is Brogan BamBrogan. He is CEO and co-founder of Hyperloop One and a former engineer with Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Welcome to “Science Friday.”

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: Great to be here, Ira. Just a quick clarification, I’m CTO, chief technical officer and co-founder.

IRA FLATOW: Oh. Wow. I know that’s important because I watch that TV show Silicon Valley, and I see all the different stuff that people like to be called. So did you leave SpaceX just to become CTO of Hyperloop One?

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: I left SpaceX on my own, actually, in 2013. And then my co-founder, Shervin Pishevar kind of was looking to build this company, and he asked a few people who to go to, and they all said me. And so that was the beginning of Shervin and I starting on this journey.

IRA FLATOW: And you think it can really work?

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: There’s no question it can work. We say many times, we could build a Hyperloop today. It would just be very expensive. So our goal is to not just bring this technology to the table, but bring it in a way that’s just drastically cost competitive with every other form of transportation as well as all the other opportunities that it brings with it, being ultra fast, ultra safe, not at grade, all green, no carbon, fully sustainable. So all of these things are important, but they’re not important if we can’t do it cost effectively.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I guess you must bring a little bit of that DNA from SpaceX, because everybody would say to Elon, you can’t do that, you can’t do that, and then he goes ahead and does it.

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: Without question, the DNA of my time at SpaceX has got its fingerprints all over Hyperloop. And in fact, people have gone into orbit before, but what SpaceX is doing is actually making it far, far cheaper, not only with the way they’ve built the company, but then with the epic technology advance, like landing a rocket. I mean, that’s just amazing.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s what you say you’re doing. There’s really nothing new that has to be invented here, is there?

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: There’s nothing new that has to be invented, but what we are doing is innovating, and we are inventing things to bring the cost down. So Elon didn’t again start the rocket company with it landing on the first shot, but it’s really one of the game changers is happening. So we’re going to be bringing some of those game changers to Hyperloop.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Tell us about what you have done so far on that road.

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: Yeah. So what we’re doing is we’re really developing all the core technologies that enable Hyperloop to work. So you think about the custom linear electric motor that we ran a test of recently. You think about the aero- and thermodynamics of the pod.

You think about the levitation system. You think about the tube construction techniques, power electronics, control systems. So all these systems, we’re engineering these on the component level, and they’re all going to come together with a full system test this year.

So at the end of this year, we hope to run a full system test. We’re calling it our Kitty Hawk moment when we’re in a controlled environment tube, and we accelerate our own pod and levitate it with our own custom levitation system. So that’s going to be the big moment we’re aiming for, and that’s hopefully Q4 this year.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Kitty Hawk went only a few hundred yards. Is that what you’re aiming at?

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: Our first tests are going to be incremental, so we’re probably going to be in the 1 to 2 kilometer range. But as our testing continues, we’re going to be going farther and faster and adding turns and switching and pressure valves and all the other safety mechanisms that really go into the system.

IRA FLATOW: Is the system going to be an underground system, an above ground system, or just wherever you need to put it, it’s the same sort of technology?

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: Yes, yes, and yes. As we develop these technologies, our goal is to service the customer needs. And certainly, that’s what the customer thinks they want, but also as you develop new tech, we think we can deliver things that people don’t even know they want yet, and that’s going to manifest itself in a lot of ways. So I think we will see some above grade systems. We’re definitely going to see some tunnel systems, and we also want to do some underwater systems.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the engineering challenges that you’re still working on to solve. Give us an idea, one potential issue. If you’re in a tube, don’t you have to evacuate the tube? And how do you keep the vacuum in that, and how big a vacuum? That kind of thing.

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: Yeah. That’s a great question. One of the things that we really liked about the system level architecture that the Elon Musk developed is that it’s not a hard vacuum. So maintaining a hard vacuum like they have at CERN, the supercollider, takes a lot of energy, and it’s really hard to get that last mile.

So we’re kind of operating in what we think is sort of the sweet spot of energy usage where we’re at low pressure, low enough that there’s very little aerodynamic drag, but also high enough that it’s easy to maintain, not only get to, but even if there’s leaks or other things that are going to happen in a robust system. So we really think we kind of are going to be operating in the sweet spot of that vacuum.

IRA FLATOW: And its propulsion system, you’re working on that. And I know it’s levitating like a maglev train, like magnetic levitation. And you’ve found a way to have what’s called a linear motor. How does a linear motor work?

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: The same way a rotary electric motor works. In a rotary motor, you have a rotor and a stator, the stator being stationary, the rotor being the moving part. As you energize it, you create an electromagnetic field, which causes the thing to move. We just do that in a linear fashion.

So our stator, the stationary part, is actually on the tube, on the wayside, and the rotor part is on the vehicle. So as we energize the coils, in our case, on the tube, they create a magnetic field. We have magnets on the pod. The magnets don’t like that magnetic field and they run away, and we kind of chase the pod away. So it’s a fully non-contact propulsion system and also a non-contact levitation system, which is part of the reason we can achieve high speeds and achieve ultra low turbulence and achieve really low maintenance costs.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Brogan BamBrogan, chief technology officer at Hyperloop One on “Science Friday” from PRI, Public Radio International. OK, so you have your mini Kitty Hawk coming up. What time of the year you going to do that?

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: We’re aiming for the end of Q4. So we think we’re going to get it off this year.

IRA FLATOW: And what are the safety issues that you have to engineer before you’re going to be able to convince people to get into one of these things?

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: Safety is absolutely number one. For me personally, it’s probably the biggest advantage that we get out of Hyperloop. First of all, part of the natural we think brilliance of the architecture first proposed is it’s a naturally safe system.

I don’t know the numbers exactly, but most transportation accidents occur either due to– at grade crossings, which we don’t have, weather events, which we’re mostly immune to, and to operator error, which we’re going to be immune to because we’re a fully autonomous system. So you take away those three things, that’s over 90% of the accidents that happen in transportation. So that’s gone already.

And then we have some other things that we’re working on. Certainly, we actually just hired a fantastic director of safety engineering. We’re having great conversations with international safety consultancies around the world. We’re kind of built out of corporate partnerships with all the people that do transportation safety, and learn from the best, and integrate all those into what we’re doing.

IRA FLATOW: Is this going to be a long train, like we have trains, or are they going to be smaller little pods, like buses that–

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: Now that is a great question, Ira. So one of the things that we really like about what we’re doing is we aim to packetize the delivery of certainly people or cargo. So what that means is it’s not going to look like a train. It’s going to feel more like a car in terms of– nobody ever arrived at their car early because your car leaves when you want it to leave.

So as we create kind of small units that are discrete, we can send people exactly when they arrive at the terminals, and we also can send them directly to their final destination. So you can imagine a train stops in multiple places. We use the word packetize. As we packetize these, now we can send each group of people directly to their destination. So these are some of the real values that we’re going to bring with this tech.

IRA FLATOW: You could call it uberize, right? You call it–

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: We have to talk to the good people at Uber, but sounds great.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We talked about here in the US, but are there people working on in sites around the world where this might be useful?

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: We definitely have a lot of international interest, and I’m leaving soon on a four country trip, actually. So the great news is, around the world, we’re talking with all the best partners, worldwide leaders in rail, and transportation, and mobility. These are the people that we’re partnering with in the region. So I think we’re going to see sort of discrete and different Hyperloops serving different regional networks. As the people that live there and operate mobility systems locally, they know how to serve the needs of their people, and those are going to be our partners.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’re looking forward to your test run out there, Brogan, so stay in touch, OK.

BROGAN BAMBROGAN: You got it. Great to chat.

IRA FLATOW: Brogan BamBrogan is co-founder and chief technology officer at Hyperloop. Want to thank you for joining us today.

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