Friday, July 21, 2017

Hyperloop, Maglev or NEC?

The $2.9 million Red Line started in a regional long range transportation plan and died 10 years later in conventional press conference.
The unspecified cost Hyperloop train between Washington and New York has no costs, no plans and no budget and started with a Tweet.
Hyperloop in Nevada: Mirage in the desert?

People frustrated will the slow progress of government regulated projects and love the tech hyperbole tend to prefer the Tweet approach. Except, there is no proof that high-flyers like Mr. Musk can do a public project any faster, no matter how fast he has catapulted his Tesla car company (sales: 26,000 cars in 2016) from zero to being higher valued than General Motors (sales: 10 million cars in 2016) in large part by bringing innovative models faster to market than anybody else.

Proof that private money and engineering ingenuity alone don't guarantee speed, no matter how fast the proposed technology is MagLev, another futuristic train proposed by a private consortium between Washington and New York. Even the first tiny leg that is supposed to serve as proof of concept is currently no further than the conventional rail improvement project NEC proposed by Amtrak: Environmental review under NEPA laws. It is also useful to remember that Maglev has seen no less than five previous studies going as far back as 1994 and none went any further tahn the completion of an Environmental Impact Study between 2003-07).
Tech wunderkind Elon Musk: Not yet deflated

Tweeting Elon Musk and his millions of Twitter followers will have to go through the same slug of a process as well, no matter that he sat at the President's economic advisory council  (he presumably left the table after Trump announced leaving the Paris Climate Accord) and apparently had "positive conversation" at the White House about his project or has influential local admirers (Plank's Damian Costa tweeted Thursday: "If you want this to happen fast, please let your local and federal elected officials know. Makes a big difference if they hear from you").

So what is it exactly what makes the tech world and everybody else hyper-ventilate so much that the official statement by Mayor Pugh seems moderate by comparison?
“I am excited to hear about Elon Musk’s underground Hyperloop connecting New York to Washington, DC through Baltimore. If his plan becomes a reality it has tremendous potential to create new opportunities for Baltimore and transform the way we link to neighboring cities.” Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, City of Baltimore
 The now famous tweet stated Musk had been given “verbal” government “approval” for his vision, in which his Boring Company would build an underground transportation Hyperloop system connecting New York City to Philadelphia to Baltimore and DC for a total trip time of 29 minutes. (Note, he didn't even say 30 minutes!). Leaving alone the pesky political question who provided such approval which would usually take years to get, how would Hyperloop work?

Of course, there is no Hyperloop operating anywhere nor has even a test track been built. The only photos of an actual experiment exist from a Nevada surface test sled. The idea is to put tracks and electromagnets inside an underground tube and vacuum the air out. Ultimately, capsules (Musk's Hyperloop company talks about 8.5 meters in length, shorter than a historic streetcar) will scream through the center of such a tube at just under sonic 700 miles per hour on a cushion of remaining air propelled by intermittent electromagnets in the tube walls every 40-50 miles plus a fan on the pod for continuous propulsion, all together faster than any currently available planes or trains.
Hyperloop rendering
“The thing about Hyperloop is that it does not exist until it actually exists, [...]“We build fast, adapt fast, and get a lot more data rather than wait and wait until one final build, which may or may not work,”” Josh Giegel, vice president of design and analysis at Hyperloop Tech to the MIT Technology Review in May 2016)
Musk's Space X company proved that he could fly a craft into space only five years after incorporating, just like the Tesla car this was a technology around for decades (there were electric cars in the 1920s and spacecraft since the 1960s). In fact, the first vacuum tube train was actually built even before that, in 1845 between London and Croyden, still an active 7.5 mile rail corridor south of central London. The train reached 70 mph, faster than anything else at the time. But it was beaten after only two years by its incompatibility with traditional rail with steam engines that had quickly expanded to the worldwide conventional rail network which is still the norm today.
Concept section of a pod (Space X)

"Politicians won’t believe in it until it exists" says Rob Lloyd, Hyperloop's Tech CEO who tried US states to provide some money for his start-up. Well, they believe in Musk's Tweet, but when it comes to money, they haven't opened tax payer coffers (yet) except for Nevada, the only state where prostitution is also legal. It somehow aided with the test area.

Investor Shervin Pishevar says “Transportation is the new broadband” envisioning a hyperloop network between cities that would also transport freight, but a big flow of capital towards the hyperloop technology isn't visible yet even though Musk wrote in 2013 a nice white paper explaining the general physics of the hyperloop concept including how he would overcome the Kantrowitz limit of air resistance in a tube and deal with earthquakes and farmers.
The approach that I believe would overcome the Kantrowitz limit is to mount
an electric compressor fan on the nose of the pod that actively transfers high
pressure air from the front to the rear of the vessel. This is like having a pump
in the head of the syringe actively relieving pressure.
It would also simultaneously solve another problem, which is how to create a
low friction suspension system when traveling at over 700 mph. Wheels don’t
work very well at that sort of speed, but a cushion of air does. (Elon Musk white paper)
Technology may not be the biggest hurdle for the Hyperloop, even though there are a gazillion issues when actual human passengers are involved who actually want to get on and off at stations and disrupt the nice magnetic vacuum dreams with their usual frailty, fear, cost aversion and slowness, all human properties which have stopped big dreams before, such as the hypersonic air travel such as the beautiful French Concorde which was mothballed a few years back.
Vacuums have a nasty habit of killing living organisms really fast (unless you are a tardigrade, in which case you're fine). So, in the event of an emergency, passengers cannot leave the pod until the tube itself is re-pressurized. [...] the air will not move slowly into the system but instead create a powerful air front [....] close to the speed of sound. Such a front could devastate any pods in the entire length of tube  Robin Mitchel in All About Circuits)
NEPA timeline for MagLev: Years of studies
The real obstacle is going to be two global forces which will slow the project from two sides, capitalism and government. Capitalism because it puts money only where there is a return and government because it has a terrible time regulating something that didn't exist before.

Putting a 200 mile tunnel project with various stations through an established funding and review process will take its merry time if it ever happens. Maglev's " approach to built a much shorter track just between Washington and Baltimore as a "proof of concept"  will make even less sense with a system that dreams about reaching twice the speed.  (Both systems really make only sense over large distances)
TGV: Record steel rail speed at 357 mph

One day steel-wheel on steel-rail technology will have to come to an end, but for this to be soon cutting edge conventional trains run just too well. 350mph reached by the TGV would probably just do fine, even between New York and DC, let alone that such a train could actually continue to Miami, even if those tracks would still allow only 70mph.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The Hyperloop: Ambitious Goals and Engineering Challenges 
Musk Hyperloop Alpha White Paper

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