No, a feasibility study has not proved the hyperloop would work

If only it was feasible. Image: Virgin Hyperloop One.

The Hyperloop, the futuristic transport concept that tech journalists love and grumpy engineers love to hate, is on a PR offensive.

There are several firms trying to turn Elon Musk’s vision of transporting people through metal tubes at supersonic speeds – in a way that would supposedly displace boring old trains and planes – into hard reality. But the one whose plans are furthest advanced is arguably Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO).

And the great man’s latest baby is currently doing a roadshow around America, wooing state and local governments and trying to persuade them to provide the funding, permits and political backing to build full-sized hyperloop lines all over the country. “I believe we could see a hyperloop in the US in years, not decades,” VHO’s press release quotes Sir Richard as saying.

Branson has form when it comes to ambitious deadlines. In 2004 he promised that Virgin Galactic would be running passenger space flights by 2007; 12 years after that deadline, said space flights have not materialised.

But perhaps this will be different. After all, several potential hyperloop projects are being scoped out. And haven’t we had time now to prove if the thing can really whisk real people around at 1080kph – not quite supersonic, and not as fast as Musk originally imagined, but still pretty damn quick – like VHO says it can?

The answer is no – but what we have learned throws a fascinating spotlight onto how the alliance of breathless PR and clickbait merchants has parlayed hyperloop into something that increasing amounts of public officials (not just in America, but in India too) seem to regard as a genuine transport option today.

VHO trumpets that the Missouri Hyperloop Coalition, a group of public and private bodies, has “released results from the first hyperloop feasibility study in the US which confirmed the viability of a St Louis to Kansas City route”. As far as this reporter can tell, that is the only feasibility study into hyperloop VHO or anyone has carried out to date. (I did ask VHO. It hasn’t responded.)

And VHO is very pleased indeed with that study: it’s been saying that it “represents the first phase of actualisation of a full-scale commercial hyperloop system” and that it “examine[d] the technology, constructability and the economics associated with designing and building a Missouri Hyperloop”. They’re not the only one to be pleased: Black & Veatch won an award for their work, as well as extensive media coverage.

Earlier this year, while writing a piece for Modus magazine, I happened to interview one of the people behind that feasibility study, a director at respected engineering consultancy Black & Veatch, which was commissioned by both VHO and the coalition. Black & Veatch has tremendous experience in designing and developing various kinds of infrastructure projects, but one area the firm’s experience does not extend to, as its director freely admitted, is large-scale transport infrastructure – the sort that requires lots of steel and concrete, like roads and railways do and hyperloop would. Hiring a firm with no track record in relevant projects would be unthinkable for any serious public authority trying to build some major transport infrastructure. The director in question’s area of expertise was data centre projects.

When I sought to confirm that this feasibility study had indeed proved that all the bits of VHO’s proposed hyperloop – magnetic levitation, a vacuum tube, and a passenger-carrying pod – could all work at near-supersonic speeds and pay for itself to boot, I was told that, in fact, “we did not evaluate VHO’s technology; we made an assumption that they can get up to 500-600mph as promised”.

In fact, what the study had essentially established was that VHO could build a hyperloop line from St Louis to Kansas City along a certain route, with certain stations in certain places, that there would be space to do this and that enough passengers would come to cover the cost of the project, which their “high-level” estimate puts at $8-10bn, all assuming  VHO’s proprietary technology worked. Whether that assumption is actually true remained firmly unexamined.

Which brings us to a third problem with this study. Estimating what a road or railway ought to cost is relatively straightforward: so many of them have been built that today’s engineer has a vast database of cost estimates at their fingertips.

But nobody has ever built a fully working hyperloop, which, to make any use of its top speed, would need to be tens if not hundreds of kilometres in length. VHO’s prototype in Nevada is just 500 metres long. Its pod has not reached even half the target top speed – and it has never carried a single passenger. There are therefore no reliable cost estimates for what it would cost to build the roughly 370km Missouri route, let alone a clear idea of how much it would cost to operate.

In fairness, Black & Veatch’s experts freely admit that more work needs to be done to prove that hyperloop is technically, let alone commercially, viable. But they didn’t publicly admit it until I asked them – by which time the inaccurate press releases published on the back of their work had long been turned into news headlines.

VHO is now promising more “feasibility studies” in the states of Texas and Ohio. It remains to be seen whether they’ll prove the feasibility of anything except misleading PR campaigns.


The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.

Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.