Elon Musk's Hyperloop might actually get built

Image: Hyperloop Transportation Technology.

Elon Musk, billionaire and entrepreneur, is a man of many enterprises. Some, like online payment site PayPal or the solar panel giant SolarCity, sound like sensible, practical responses to modernity. Others, like his idea for a pan-American network of magnetically levitating trains, seem, at first glance, less so.

Musk first laid out proposals for his Hyperloop transport system in 2013, calling it a "cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table". Passenger capsules would whizz back and forth between LA and San Francisco along two parallel tubes (the "loop" of the train's name):

Unfortunately, his original cost estimate of $6bn for a line between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area was deemed a massive underestimate by infrastructure experts and economists

So far, so unfeasible, and after the initial proposals were first released in 2013, everything went quiet for a bit. As it turns out, Musk was rounding up a group of 100 part-time engineers to conduct further research in exchange for stock options, and in December, they finally released a document outlining their progress. Then this happened: 

Musk later told the Texas Tribune that the test track would be privately funded. And, since he is a very rich man, it looks quite possible that the track will actually be built sometime in the not-too-distant future.

In summary, it might be time to start taking the Hyperloop seriously. In that spirit, here are some takeaways from the engineers' 76-page briefing document .  

It would be the fastest train in the world. 

The current fastest train is the Japan's maglev, which also operates using magnetic levitation technology but runs at a maximum speed of 602 kmh. The Hyperloop would double this speed by using the same magnet technology (which propels the train along as it floats above a magnetic rail) inside a vacuum, so friction would be reduced to a minimum.

As a result, the engineers' calculations are based on the idea that passengers will move at 470mph. 

The grand plan is very grand.

Musk originally proposed a line between LA and the Bay area as an alternative to a planned high-speed train on the route. Now, the proposed Hyperloop routes look like this:

Click for a larger image. Image: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies


To show the scale of their ambitions, the group have produced mock-ups of the trains grandly passing in front of various US city landmarks. Here's Washington DC:

And New York:

They're hoping to keep prices down (but they might not be able to). 

If the project sticks to the original $6bn budget, ticket prices between LA and San Francisco would be around $20-$30, with higher prices on longer routes. This would be dramatically cheaper than US air or rail travel – a flight from LA to San Francisco, for example, is $100 minimum. But, the report admits, if the budget for each line rises higher, ticket prices would need to rise too to cover costs. 

The capsules won't have any windows, and you won't be able to go to the toilet (probably). 

In order to reach that enormous speed, the capsules will whizz along inside a thick, vacuumised tube, which means there won't be any pleasant views of the American countryside.

You'll also need to keep your seatbelt on at all times – so no loo trips. 

The document suggests several solutions to this problem, including a toilet in business class for "emergencies", or this somewhat horrifying suggestion: 

One solution could be to allow each seat to be separated and isolated from the others and use a system integrated in the seat for emergency issues.

So you'd essentially be sitting on a toilet for the entire trip

A capsule leak could be catastrophic.

One issue with whizzing capsules along an airless tube is that the tube will be, well, airless. If the capsule's walls sprung a leak, or if passengers needed to make an emergency exits, pressure conditions would be a bit like being in space. From the report:  

None of the emergency measures commonly used even by military pilots... are enough to avoid severe hypoxia and traumas related to the decompression.

It continues, somewhat more cheerfully:

Luckily we are not in space but on earth and believe we can find systems to compensate the pressure fast enough.

We've watched enough sci-fi films to know that this should be very, very high on the priority list. 


Seven climate change myths put about by big oil companies

Oil is good for you! Image: Getty.

Since the start of this year, major players within the fossil fuel industry – “big oil” – have made some big announcements regarding climate change. BP revealed plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by acquiring additional renewable energy companies. Royal Dutch Shell defended its $1-$2bn green energy annual budget. Even ExxonMobil, until recently relatively dismissive of the basic science behind climate change, included a section dedicated to reducing emissions in its yearly outlook for energy report.

But this idea of a “green” oil company producing “clean” fossil fuels is one that I would call a dangerous myth. Such myths obscure the irreconcilability between burning fossil fuels and environmental protection – yet they continue to be perpetuated to the detriment of our planet.

Myth 1: Climate change can be solved with the same thinking that created it

Measures put in place now to address climate change must be sustainable in the long run. A hasty, sticking plaster approach based on quick fixes and repurposed ideas will not suffice.

Yet this is precisely what some fossil fuel companies intend to do. To address climate change, major oil and gas companies are mostly doing what they have historically excelled at – more technology, more efficiency, and producing more fossil fuels.

But like the irresponsible gambler that cannot stop doubling down during a losing streak, the industry’s bet on more, more, more only means more ecological destruction. Irrespective of how efficient fossil fuel production becomes, that the industry’s core product can be 100 per cent environmentally sustainable is an illusion.

A potential glimmer of hope is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process that sucks carbon out of the air and sends it back underground. But despite being praised by big oil as a silver bullet solution for climate change, CCS is yet another sticking plaster approach. Even CCS advocates suggest that it cannot currently be employed on a global, mass scale.

Myth 2: Climate change won’t spell the end of the fossil fuel industry

According to a recent report, climate change is one factor among several that has resulted in the end of big oil’s golden years – a time when oil was plenty, money quick, and the men at the top celebrated as cowboy capitalists.

Now, to ensure we do not surpass the dangerous 2°C threshold, we must realise that there is simply no place for “producers” of fossil fuels. After all, as scientists, financial experts, and activists have warned, if we want to avoid dangerous climate change, the proven reserves of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies cannot be consumed.

Myth 3: Renewables investment means oil companies are seriously tackling climate change

Compared to overall capital expenditures, oil companies renewables’ investment is a miniscule drop in the barrel. Even then, as companies such as BP have demonstrated before, they will divest from renewables as soon as market conditions change.

Big oil companies’ green investments only produce tiny reductions in their overall greenhouse gas emissions. BP calls these effects “real sustainable reductions” – but they accounted for only 0.3 per cent of their total emissions reductions in 2016, 0.1 per cent in 2015, 0.1 per cent in 2014, and so on.

Myth 4: Hard climate regulation is not an option

One of the oil industry’s biggest fears regarding climate change is regulation. It is of such importance that BP recently hinted at big oil’s exodus from the EU if climate regulation took effect. Let’s be clear, we are talking about “command-and-control” regulation here, such as pollution limits, and not business-friendly tools such as carbon pricing or market-based quota systems.

There are many commercial reasons why the fossil fuel industry would prefer the latter over the former. Notably, regulation may result in a direct impact on the bottom line of fossil fuel companies given incurred costs. But climate regulation is – in combination with market-based mechanisms – required to address climate change. This is a widely accepted proposition advocated by mainstream economists, NGOs and most governments.

Myth 5: Without cheap fossil fuels, the developing world will stop

Total’s ex-CEO, the late Christoph de Margerie, once remarked: “Without access to energy, there is no development.” Although this is probably true, that this energy must come from fossil fuels is not. Consider, for example, how for 300 days last year Costa Rica relied entirely on renewable energy for its electricity needs. Even China, the world’s biggest polluter, is simultaneously the biggest investor in domestic renewables projects.

As the World Bank has highlighted, in contrast to big oil’s claims about producing more fossil fuels to end poverty, the sad truth is that by burning even the current fossil fuel stockpile, climate change will place millions of people back into poverty. The UN concurs, signalling that climate change will result in reduced crop yields, more waterborne diseases, higher food prices and greater civil unrest in developing parts of the world.

Myth 6: Big oil must be involved in climate policy-making

Fossil fuel companies insist that their involvement in climate policy-making is necessary, so much so that they have become part of the wallpaper at international environmental conferences. This neglects that fossil fuels are, in fact, a pretty large part of the problem. Big oil attends international environmental conferences for two reasons: lobbying and self-promotion.

Some UN organisations already recognise the risk of corporations hijacking the policy-making process. The World Health Organisation, for instance, forbids the tobacco industry from attending its conferences. The UN’s climate change arm, the UNFCCC, should take note.

Myth 7: Nature can and must be “tamed” to address climate change

If you mess with mother nature, she bites back. As scientists reiterate, natural systems are complex, unpredictable, and even hostile when disrupted.

Climate change is a prime example. Small changes in the chemical makeup of the atmosphere may have drastic implications for Earth’s inhabitants.

The ConversationFossil fuel companies reject that natural systems are fragile – as evidenced by their expansive operations in ecologically vulnerable areas such as the Arctic. The “wild” aspect of nature is considered something to be controlled and dominated. This myth merely serves as a way to boost egos. As independent scientist James Lovelock wrote, “The idea that humans are yet intelligent enough to serve as stewards of the Earth is among the most hubristic ever.”

George Ferns, Lecturer in Management, Employment and Organisation, Cardiff University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.