The Hyperloop sounds like science fiction, Elon Musk’s pipe dream: leapfrog high speed rail and go right to packing us into capsules that fling us across the country in hours using what are, essentially, pneumatic tubes. It sounds crazy, when you think about it.
It’s starting to look a little less crazy.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies announced today that it has signed agreements to work with Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum and global engineering design firm Aecom. The two companies will lend their expertise in exchange for stock options in the company, joining the army of engineers from the likes of Boeing and SpaceX already lending their time to the effort.
“It’s a validation of the fact that our model works,” says Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. “It’s the next step.”
The Hyperloop, detailed by the SpaceX and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk in a 57-page alpha white paper in August 2013, is a transportation network of above-ground tubes that could span hundreds of miles. With extremely low air pressure inside those tubes, capsules filled with people would zip through them at near supersonic speeds. Musk published the paper encouraging anyone interested to pursue the idea, since he’s kinda a busy guy.
That timing lined up with the beta launch of JumpStartFund, a startup that combines elements of crowdfunding and crowd-sourcing to tackle ambitious projects like revolutionary transportation infrastructure. JumpStartFund created Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Inc, which brought together engineers willing to spend their free time working on the design in exchange for stock options.
The startup plans to start construction on a full-scale, passenger-ready Hyperloop in 2016. The prototype will run 5 miles through Quay Valley, a planned community rising from nothing along Interstate 5, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Ahlborn says he’s got several potential investors.
I thought, ‘Traveling in a vacuum tube? This is something we should be involved in.’
The startup also announced today that it has 400 “team members” working on the project. They aren’t employees, but women and men with regular gigs at places like NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX, who spend their spare time on Hyperloop in exchange for stock options. It’s easy to see why they want to get involved: It’s the chance to work on a truly revolutionary form of transportation—even if some remain convinced it’s never gonna happen.
The partnerships with Oerlikon and Aecom are a big endorsement, suggesting the prototype may be a real thing, not an idea whipped up by Don Quixote. It shows the project is worthy of time and effort from two publicly traded companies with shareholders to answer to. And these companies know what they’re doing. Oerlikon has been in the vacuum business for more than a century, and has worked on projects like the large hadron collider at CERN.
“I don’t think the construction hurdles are significant compared to other technologies that are already out there,” says Carl Brockmeyer, Oerlikon’s head of business development. “From a technical point of view, it’s not a challenge. We are used to much higher and harsher applications.”
The hard part on the Hyperloop project, Brockmeyer says, will be “to remain within other constraints,” like energy consumption and cost.
Dirk has some very realistic plans. He’s approaching this the right way.
Oerlikon has put a half dozen employees on the project. They’re simulating how much energy it would take to clear the Hyperloop tube to near zero pressure, and what it would cost. Brockmeyer declined to give exact figures, but says “you will be surprised” by how little energy is required. In fact, he says the energy could be generated by the solar panels and wind turbines Ahlborn plans to erect in Quay Valley. All that aside, there’s another reason Oerlikon signed on.
“I thought, ‘Traveling in a vacuum tube? This is something we should be involved in,’” Brockmeyer says.
Aecom is there to help get it built. It’s routinely involved in major architecture and infrastructure projects, including Brooklyn’s Barclays Center arena, the Crossrail tunnel being built under London, and the Alameda Corridor freight rail expressway in Southern California. Andrew Liu, VP of new ventures for the Fortune 500 company, says the technology needed to make Hyperloop work is here, now. “He has some very realistic plans,” Liu says of Ahlborn. “He’s approaching this the right way.”
It remains to be seen how this will pan out, but having these two companies sign on makes it more likely than ever that the future of transportation may not be autonomous vehicles or supersonic jets, but capsules flying through vacuum tubes.
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