LoopTransport 2018

Hyperloop Conference UCLA 2018

Last week I attended a Hyperloop conference at UCLA in Los Angeles. I also presented a paper entitled “Hyperloop Safety Study”. The conference followed the Space-X competition, hosted by Elon Musk, in nearby Hawthorne.

I will post details later. But for now, I say that I started my presentation with two simple questions that must always be asked when starting a new project, or looking at new technology: 

  1. Will it work? and
  2. Is it safe? 

My remarks were focused on the second question, “Is it safe?”

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Fox News Hyperloop Video

Fox News has just released a video to do with hyperloop. The video is upbeat in tone, suggesting that the technology is well advanced and that the general concept is practical. It does not, however, provide any new information.

They also discuss the regulatory environment: should a hyperloop be considered a train or an airplane? They seem to come down on the side of ‘airplane’ because the modules are actually flying along the tubes — there are no wheels or rails.

Hyperloop Safety Study

 

Location of Hyperloop Conference, 2018
Kerckhoff Hall, UCLA

As we have discussed many times at this blog, the world of transportation technology is undergoing radical and wrenching changes. Almost daily there is news about electric cars, autonomous (driverless) vehicles, drones and even space rocket transportation.

One of the new technologies — and one that we have discussed frequently at this site — is hyperloop. This technology is still in the early development phase, but has the following essential features.

  • “Trains” travel along tubes from which the air has been removed. Hence, there is very little air resistance.
  • The “trains” are magnetically levitated — they do not actually touch anything — there are no tracks. Hence there is no wheel/rail friction loss.
  • The maglev system incorporates linear motors that propel the modules. Hence there are very few moving parts and so there are few internal friction losses.

But, before this new technology can be adopted for general use, we must address the two questions that engineers always ask when starting a new project. They are:

  1. Will it work? and
  2. Is it safe?

In order to address the second question we will be presenting a paper at the ‘LoopTransPort’ conference at the University of California in July of this year. The title of the paper is ‘Hyperloop Safety Study’. Details to do with the two day program are available here.

The theme of the paper is that the safety  challenges that the hyperloop industry is facing are similar to challenges faced at one time or another by other industries. These include the nuclear power industry, the offshore oil and gas industry and the chemical industries. In spite of the very different nature of the technologies between them, many lessons can be learned from these other industries. The reason for this is that safety is basically a management topic, not a technology issue. Therefore, the safety management practices developed in one industry can often be successfully used in another area.

The Boring Company in Los Angeles

The problem that almost all rail expansion projects face — Ashland is no exception — is that new tracks destroy property or attractive open areas of land. This means that the best solution is to move into the third dimension, i.e., to construct a tunnel.

Elon Musk receives a lot of publicity to do with his new technologies such as hyperloop, space transportation and electric cars. But it could be that, in the long run, his greatest contribution will be the new technologies that he is developing with his Boring Company.

When various options for the Ashland area were under consideration last year, the idea of constructing a tunnel was summarily dismissed as being too expensive. It could be that Musk will change that way of thinking. As noted in our post The Baltimore/D.C. Project, he claims that current technology is such that the machines for drilling tunnels move at one fourteenth the speed of a snail. He aims to increase tunnel-drilling speeds to equal that of a snail.

The Baltimore/D.C. post described the project that is under way to build a tunnel between those two cities. The “trains” running through it are likely to be some form of hyperloop. Now we learn that the City of Los Angeles has entered into an agreement with the Boring Company that could result in the creation of a network of tunnels underneath that city.

Let’s revisit the idea of a tunnel under Hanover/Ashland. It could be used for high speed trains and other non-stop traffic. The existing rail could be used for non-express trains and selected freight trains.

HARP Meeting (April 2018)

HARP-Panel.jpg

Background

For those of you who are new to this blog here is some background.

  • For almost three years the citizens of Ashland have been resisting the proposal to run a third track through town.
  • The resistance has been on many fronts, including public meetings with the authorities and reviewing legal issues.
  • I have concentrated on technology. After all, the last major technological change to the tracks took place in the early 1950s; it was the transition from steam to diesel-electric. That’s two generations ago.
  • The transportation industry in the United States is currently undergoing massive, wrenching and exciting changes. It seems that hardly a day goes by without there being news to do with autonomous vehicles, Space-X, electric trucks and other new technologies.
  • One of those changes is the technology known as “hyperloop”. (A brief overview of what this word means is provided below).
  • So the question is, “Can hyperloop technology perform an end run around this whole 3rd track controversy?”

Hyperloop

Hyperloop train Richmond to Washington
The technology associated with hyperloop is still being developed so it lacks standardization. (This is analogous to what happened in the early days of railroading. Initially many, many companies built and operated “short lines” — often using different track gauges. Only later did those short lines merge into large systems such as Pennsylvania Railroad.)

Regardless of how the technology shakes out, the key feature of any hyperloop system is that it virtually removes the three sources of friction that are a feature of current trains. They are:

  1. Friction between the rails and the rail;
  2. Internal friction due to the multiplicity of moving parts; and
  3. Air resistance — particularly when speeds go above 60 mph.

Hyperloop removes the wheel/rail friction because there are no wheels or rails. It has virtually no moving parts (it is driven by linear induction motors). And the pods run through tubes from which most of the air has been evacuated so there is negligible air resistance

The upshot is that the pods (carrying either freight or passengers) can travel at airplane speeds and they are very efficient. Moreover, there will probably not be trains or timetables as we know them now.

HARP

About a year ago a non-profit called Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership was formed. (I am a member.) The organization tries to pull tother all the threads to do with this new technology. The first conference that I attended was in New York last year.

They had another meeting this week in D.C. My overall impression is that both the technology and the business models are maturing. Hyperloop is happening. There are currently about 10 companies competing for work.

The following are my notes from the meeting in no particular order of priority.

The Baltimore/D.C. Project

HARP-1.jpg

The keynote speaker was Mr. Pete Rahn, Secretary of Transportation for the State of Maryland. He described the project that is underway to connect D.C. with Baltimore with an underground hyperloop system. The D.C. “station” will be on New York Avenue. He stated that, “Amtrak should be very worried”.

They plan on placing concrete tubes below grade; the tunnels will be built by Elon Musk’s Boring Company, which claims that they can dramatically reduce the time and cost it takes to make a tunnel, just as they have done with space travel. (The Boring Company keeps a snail in their office as a permanent challenge. They claim that snails move 14 times more quickly than current boring machines). One of the key justifications for going underground is that they get around most of the challenges to do with taking and demolishing property.

I asked Mr. Rahn if the tubes are of sufficient diameter to handle the 53 ft. containers that we see trundling through town all the time. Also, are the curves of sufficiently long radius to handle those contaners. He did not know the answer to either question.

Regulations

The European experience is that regulations will be developed a land-based agency, such as the Federal Railroad Administration.

Projects

In addition to the Maryland project, other active programs are:

  • A 3 km test track in Toulouse, France
  • The Dubai/Abu Dhabi route
  • Quebec City/Montreal/Toronto/Chicago project

Real Estate

Any attempt to expand any type of transportation system faces the challenge of lack of real estate. So proposals to build a new airport, freeway or railroad track results in resistance from local communities. Ashland is not unique.

The most attractive solution is go underground. But, in spite of the optimism expressed, the cost would probably be very high. Another option would be to use existing rights of way (freeways and railroads) to construct an elevated system.

Cherry Blossom

In addition to attending the meeting the trip was a good opportunity to see the famous cherry blossom.

Cherry-Blossom-1.jpg

HARP Hyperloop Meeting

HARP HyperloopOn December 6th the non-profit organization Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership (HARP) organized a conference in New York City. The title of the conference was The Hyperloop: Promises and Challenges. There were 75 attendees  —  the meeting was sold out.

Most of the meeting, which was chaired by HARP’s President, Dane Egli, consisted of a panel discussion followed by a question and answer session. Panel members were:

  • Sebastien Gendron, CEO & Co-founder of TransPod Hyperloop
  • Rebecca Leonard, President of Hypernet Holding Corporation (HHC)
  • Bibop G. Gresta, Chairman & Co-Founder of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT)
  • Rick Geddes, Professor of Policy Analysis, Cornell University & Director of the Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy (CPIP)

As many readers of this blog know I started to look into the feasibility of hyperloop in order to find out if this new technology could create an end run around the problems to do with our ‘High Speed Rail’ project. But I have learned that this technology has the potential to change our transportation world as much as the automobile did a hundred years ago.

I attended this particular conference to learn more about the five basic questions I am trying to answer regarding hyperloop technology. The questions are:

  1. Will it work?
  2. Is it safe?
  3. Is it socially acceptable?
  4. Can it be profitable?
  5. Can it meet regulatory requirements?

The panel discussion was wide-ranging; I was encouraged to find that the research that we have done so far to do with the five questions has been quite successful — there were no surprises.

The three major takeaways for myself were:

  1. The technology is quite mature and proven.
  2. Hyperloop is not just a substitute for traditional rail. It will create a new culture that will transform all forms of surface transportation.
  3. The biggest challenge is political will — do we want to step out and adopt this new technology?

Based on my own research and on what I heard at this meeting the answers to the five questions are,

  1. Yes — there is no commercial hyperloop system in service yet but pilot projects are going well and all the pieces (maglev, low pressure tubes, linear electric motors) are in service and are successful.
  2. Conditional Yes — there are some concerns that need to be addressed regarding tracking stability.
  3. Strong Yes — the fact that hyperloop takes up much less real estate than roads, railways and airports was a stressed by the panelists. The technology is also environmentally clean.
  4. Uncertain — but the fact that Sir Richard Branson, who is a very successful business person with his own rail and airline companies, has invested in the company now known as Virgin Hyperloop One is a strong indicator as to the financial potential for this technology.
  5. Yes — the regulations have yet to be written (I have volunteered to help), but there is no reason to anticipate that they will constitute a major hurdle.

The Laws of Physics

Tesla truck

I am a chemical engineer. One of my first projects was to do with scaling up the results from a pilot plant that made plastics to the full-size facility. It turned out that scaling an industrial process can be tricky. For example, the volume of a vessel is proportional to its radius cubed, but the surface area is proportional to the surface squared. Hence heat transfer to and from the vessel required careful thought as the vessel size increased.

Process-Risk-Reliability-Management-2ndI have also spent many years analyzing the risk to do with large, complex industrial systems (chemicals, refining, pipelines, offshore oil and gas) and have published many books on these topics (the one that is probably most relevant to this discussion is Process Risk and Reliability Management).

I thought about this background in scale-up and risk management when reading about the new and exciting Tesla truck, as discussed in Just One Week. Such a vehicle seems almost too good to be true. It is efficient, environmentally clean, quiet and — above all — trendy. And the logic seems to be inescapable: electric cars have proven themselves to be commercially feasible, so why not scale up to electric trucks?

Well, as Tesla has shown, it is indeed possible to build an electric truck. But it is doubtful if a trucking company would ever buy one (unless diesel fuel becomes much, much more expensive than it is now). And this reticence has nothing to do with “attitude” — it is to do with the basic laws of physics, as discussed in the article Tesla semis and the laws of physics. What it boils down to is as follows:

  • Diesel fuel is much more energy-dense than even the most modern batteries.
  • A conventional, diesel-powered truck can haul 80,000 lb. of cargo for distances well in excess of 800 miles.
  • If an electric truck is to achieve a range of 800 miles the battery pack will be so heavy that it will not be able to carry any cargo at all.
  • The cost of the electric truck’s batteries alone is in the range $500,000 to $650,000, as compared with a complete diesel truck that is in the $100,000 $150,00 range.

An electric truck would be able to carry cargo over shorter distances (but much less than 80,000 lb.) But the economics simply do not work out. The transportation business in highly competitive — a trucking company is not going to purchase an electric truck without some type of government subsidy. Even for short distances, such as shuttling containers from a ship to a waiting freight train, the Port of Los Angeles found that electric trucks did not make economic sense. It is possible that new battery technology — also discussed in Just One Week — may address some of these difficulties. But that remains to be seen.

This site is about rail and hyperloop transportation, not about trucking. But there may be some lessons to be learned. We have to be careful that hyperloop does not become hyperloop. Specifically, does the maglev technology that is a fundamental part of hyperloop systems scale up successfully? For example, MagLev trains work and have been commercially successful for many years. But they have been successful in light-rail service such as airport shuttles. Will the technology scale up when faced with the challenge of supporting full-size, long distance passenger and high-value cargo traffic?

I trust that the answer to this question is “Yes”. But my industrial background suggests that we should be cautious and that we should be careful to check out assumptions to do with the basic laws of physics.

Denver Takes the Lead

Arrivo system in Denver

The State of Colorado, working in partnership with the company Arrivo, has committed to building the nation’s first “electromagnetic super highway”. A video of the announcement is here. The Colorado executive director starts by noting that the Denver highway system was designed in the 1950s, built in the 1960s for a population of the 1980s. But since then the population of the area has doubled. The existing infrastructure cannot be expanded — they are stuck. A new type of transportation system is needed.

Here is my understanding of what they are proposing.

  • They will start construction of a test track next year. They then start a 400 day certification period around 2019/2020. If they receive certification they will move into building the first commercial track, probably between Denver and its airport.
  • This is not a full hyperloop system because the tubes are at atmospheric pressure. Consequently the the pods travel at only 200 mph.
  • The pods are powered by Linear Electric Motors (LEMs).
  • The journey time to the airport will fall from the current 90 minutes to 9 minutes.
  • A one-way ticket will cost $15.
  • The system will carry passengers, automobiles and freight and bicycles. They stress the fact that it is an auto train. This means that people will not have to give up their cars.
  • It will have a capacity ten times the current highway system. Current highways have a capacity of 2,000 to 3,500 cars per hour. They believe that the new system will be able to handle 20,000 cars per hour.
  • They will “layer” the system on to the existing infrastructure.