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Hyperloop skeptics are becoming believers

Futuristic fantasies of high-speed transport usually depict us zipping through the skies while strapped into personal jetpacks or equally improbable airborne contraptions. After watching rocket launches and seeing mach 3+ aircraft that can traverse continents in just hours, we’ve become accustomed to looking upward when imagining new vehicles of velocity. But the latest vision of high-speed transport is not a flight of fancy. Rather, it has a more down-to-earth form.

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Called the Hyperloop, it’s a scheme that proposes using vacuum technology to make inter-city transit possible at supersonic speed. How fast is fast? Runs between Paris and Rome could be completed in close to an hour. The distance between Hanoi and Shanghai could be covered in two hours. For a longer trek, how about Mexico City to Ottawa in three and a half hours? That’s just a half-hour longer than travelers spend now waiting at the airport before takeoff.

It’s a vision of a future in which travel costs us less time and causes less damage to the environment by reducing the carbon footprint of long-distance trips. And the possibility of achieving both goals in a single solution has attracted serious investors to the project. But for the science and business communities alike, the Hyperloop concept isn’t as astounding as the fact that Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum thinks it could actually work. Late last month, science and technology media were buzzing with the news that Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Oerlikon had signed a partnership agreement. Their collaboration brings the mission closer to reality—so much so that the team plans to build a prototype of the Hyperloop in Quay Valley, California next year.

Oerlikon was drawn to the project because it offers the opportunity to create something that revolutionizes transportation and mobility. Hyperloop’s success depends on mastery of vacuum technology, an area in which the original team lacked advanced expertise. “The white paper by Elon Musk contained some initial assumptions that had not been validated,” says Carl Brockmeyer, Head of Business Development. “Our proprietary simulation software, ‘PASCAL,’ made it possible for us to assess the entire Hyperloop in detail and calculate the vacuum equipment required for optimal operation.”

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Design Studien copyright Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

The software is used to simulate, test, and validate vacuum equipment and technology and to facilitate the design of complex applications used in diverse industries. It is the foundation of vacuum system solutions to customers such as CERN, which uses leak detection instruments and an array of vacuum components in the Large Hadron Collider. At the same time, it is enabling the optimized project calculations necessary to drive continued innovation in the development of flat panel displays. One element of its simulations is identification of the hardware required to make them a working reality—and the software can accomplish that even when that hardware doesn’t exist yet.

PASCAL provides the missing link between the conception and implementation of an engineering idea. With the Hyperloop, for example, the Oerlikon team can input the dimensions of the tube along with variables such as materials used, temperature and humidity conditions, special processes, energy consumption, and the target vacuum limit. The software takes all those variables into consideration and then simulates the optimal configuration of the tube. Once that phase of development is completed, the project will advance to technical design of the transport capsule and test track.

How much precision does the Oerlikon simulation deliver?

“We can realize any project on paper and test whether it’s feasible in terms of achieving the vacuum technology,” Brockmeyer says. “It’s not just the software itself. It’s the users and know-how behind it, as well. For anybody out there who has a vision or an idea, we can figure out how you can realize it. This proprietary software gives us capabilities that are unique, at least in this form.”

While outside observers’ interest in the project grew when the partnership was announced, the excitement within Oerlikon centered on the opportunity to pioneer a new technology. The company frequently contributes to advances in vacuum research and development, but even by that standard, the Hyperloop presents an exceptional challenge. When Oerlikon’s technologists and engineers finish work, they pursue hobbies that often involve playing with technology. For a team with that intensity of focus, the thrill of the project lies in working on something that they can honestly call visionary and even revolutionary.

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Design Studien copyright Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

At the same time, they have the opportunity to spark a fundamental change in the way people think about travel, something no one has achieved for more than a century. Brockmeyer likes an analogy that Hyperloop CEO Dirk Ahlborn uses: the initial public reaction to train travel. The idea of 35 mile-per-hour rail transit ignited fear in a world accustomed to a horse-and-carriage pace of transport. People were terrified that at that speed, they would be unable to breathe. In the mid-nineteenth century, boarding a train was regarded by many as a daredevil act.

The Hyperloop again puts us in the path of the unknown, of a concept whose workings we have yet to fully grasp. If the partnership can bring it to fruition, it will have demonstrated a rare breed of thought leadership: one expressed not in words, but rather in action. In effect, the Oerlikon team is charged with helping to make the Hyperloop within our power to both execute and comprehend. “We’re working on something meaningful, and it’s the chance to take part in that,” says Dr. Martin Fuellenbach, CEO of Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum. “This is technically feasible and achievable, and we are proud to participate in it.”

By Randy B. Hecht

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Design Studien copyright Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

2 comments

  1. Simon

    very good

  2. Camilo Arenas

    Very interesting article!

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