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.

Just One Week

Tesla electric truck

A theme of this blog is that transportation technology is changing at amazing speeds yet the proposals for increasing freight capacity along the eastern corridor continue to assume the use of early 1950s technology (that was the time when locomotive power switched from steam to diesel-electric).

As an example of how technology is changing consider just three events from the past week — any of which could dramatically impact our project.

The Electric Truck

This week Elon Musk announced the Tesla electric truck. It will go from 0 to 60 mph in just 5 seconds (20 seconds while towing 80,000 lb). That’s faster than a Ford Taurus. It has a range of 500 miles at highway speeds (conventional trucks have a range up to 900 miles but many journeys are around 250 miles). It features, of course, highly sophisticated controls.

Given these figures one wonders if battery-powered trains will become feasible. If so the cost and disruption associated with overhead catenaries would be eliminated.

Solid-State Batteries

As discussed in an earlier post, the company Fisker has announced new battery technology that has an energy density 2.5 times greater than the batteries used in Musk’s cars and truck. (It needs to be stressed that there are still many technical obstacles to overcome.)


The city of Denver in Colorado has signed an agreement with the company Arrivo to install a maglev system in order to help solve that city’s serious traffic problems.

If all these changes happen in just one week, how will the industry look ten or fifteen years from now? It seems very unlikely that we will still be relying diesel-electric motive power or that the new transportation systems will still use steel wheels on steel rails.

Solid-State Batteries

Fisker solid-sate battery

This blog started out by providing technical analysis of the proposed Ashland third rail. The intent was to show that trying to squeeze a third rail through town — whether at grade or in a trench — is not feasible from an engineering point of view.

But what has happened in the two years that we have been blogging is that it is becoming increasingly obvious (a) that the transportation business is in turmoil as new technology advances very quickly, and (b) authorities such as DRPT and the CTB have not considered how these changes could apply to their proposed high-speed rail project.

As an example of how fast things are changing, just a few days ago a small company called Fisker announced that it has filed for patents for solid-state batteries. Here is what they claim.

  • They have an energy density 2.5 times that found in batteries used in current electric cars, such as Tesla. This would give an automobile a range of 500 miles.
  • The batteries can be recharged in as little as a minute.
  • They are much safer than conventional batteries.

Evidently, Toyota is working on similar technology and hopes to release it by the year 2022.

Are these claims realistic or are they hype? Well, there is certainly some hype. For example, if they really did try to recharge the battery in a minute they would need huge cables and the heat created would probably melt down everything in sight. But the essential point is that our transportation agencies and the railroad companies need to be paying very close attention to all these changes in technology. It is all happening very quickly.