Transport Systems Catapult senior technologist Alan Nettleton accompanied a small Government team on a visit to the Nevada desert in May for a first-hand look at the world’s first full-scale hyperloop test site. While the technical and economic feasibility of firing vehicles down a vacuum tube at speeds of up to 700 mph has not yet been proven at scale, Alan argues that the start of real-world trials presents concrete opportunities for the UK Intelligent Mobility sector.
The desert in Nevada is the driest on Earth, so arid in fact that it has been used by NASA as a training area for its planned missions to Mars. As I bumped my way along the edges of the desert on a golf buggy, approaching the gleaming white tube of the Virgin Hyperloop One “Devloop” test site, I experienced a giddying mix of science fiction colliding with hard reality.
Touring the facility, you just can’t escape that feeling of something that sounds fantastical but is also right there in front of you, ready for you to walk up to it, to touch it and even to step inside. During the ride up to the Devloop, we passed dozens of ‘off-cuts’ – sections of pre-fabricated steel tubing lying huge and unused on the desert floor after failing to meet the project’s demanding specifications.
Entering the 500-metre long tube itself, you get that sci-fi feeling once again. We are on foot, rather than in one of the pod vehicles (which have not yet been used to transport people), so the tube has obviously not been depressurised. But the eerie acoustics and bright rings of light – which are used to give a sense of acceleration in the company’s slick video presentations – are strangely reminiscent of the airlocks in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Once again, though, there was nothing particularly other-worldly about the look and feel of the steel tubing on its standard concrete pillars. The build seems reassuringly solid, as you would expect of a piece of kit that needs to withstand very large pressure differentials.
I was shown the pod vehicles that are eventually intended to carry passengers as well as the base vehicles on which the pods will sit. I also visited the building which houses the vacuum pumps and was able to ask the type of detailed questions that only occur to you when seeing such projects in the flesh. Most of the answers I received were commercially sensitive and therefore not disclosable, but the Virgin Hyperloop One team certainly inspired confidence in the credibility of their solution.
As well as putting on good tours and promotional videos, Virgin Hyperloop One has begun to post some impressive early results including test runs that have reached speeds of 240 mph. They say the only reason they haven’t yet been able to go faster is because of the need to slow down again before running out of tube.
Virgin Hyperloop One has certainly stolen a march by building the world’s first full-scale test site (albeit over a relatively short distance) but, to borrow another science-fiction staple, the team know that they are “not alone”. More than half a dozen companies have been set up in the past few years with the specific aim of developing and commercialising hyperloop technology, including Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) whose Los Angeles headquarters I was also able to visit during my trip.
HTT do not yet possess a full-scale test facility, although they are constructing one in Toulouse which aims to be the first passenger-carrying test facility. They were able to show me a number of high-quality exhibits explaining how their solution would work, including a full-scale mock-up of their vehicle’s interior complete with augmented reality windows designed to improve the passenger experience (which could be useful during a high-speed burst along a windowless tunnel). It was also possible to take a virtual reality “ride” in an HTT vehicle, while back in the real world, the HTT team proudly showed me a “wall of agreements” comprising signed documents detailing the arrangements that the company already has in place with various countries around the world who are interested in building operational hyperloops.
Putting the UK in the loop…
This ties in nicely with the main reason for our trip to both facilities which was not just to gaze upon the work already done to turn the hyperloop vision into reality, but, more importantly, to investigate how we can direct the brainpower of the innovation community in the UK to help solve the Hyperloop challenges and contribute to the success of this future technology, which could translate into UK economic growth.
The UK’s innovation agency Innovate UK had asked the Transport Systems Catapult (with assistance from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult) to prepare a report on the potential opportunities in terms of jobs and growth that hyperloop and its related technologies could bring the UK supply chain.
It is worth emphasising that the report was not intended as an assessment of hyperloop’s technical or economic feasibility, but rather as an evaluation of the role that UK companies could play during the further development of the technology.
As a starting point, the TSC team consulted with hyperloop developers (including Virgin Hyperloop One and HTT) and stakeholders from across industry and academia to investigate the main technical requirements and challenges facing hyperloop. We then mapped these challenges onto a graph grading the strengths of the UK supply chain in the key areas identified.
The result is shown below with the ‘x’ axis showing the alignment of UK capabilities with hyperloop requirements (on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1=low, 3=medium and 5=high), and the ‘y’ axis estimating the value to hyperloop development (also on the same scale) of receiving external support in these areas. A colour code was also applied, indicating whether the requirement is short term (roughly 0-2 years), medium term (2-5 years) or longer term (+5 years).
When looking at key areas where public funding investment might be used to stimulate UK industry (pretty much the raison d’être for Innovate UK), the report therefore suggests that enterprise business models, solution architecture, propulsion, energy storage, thermal management and communications technology are all relevant areas where the UK could play a strong role in the development of hyperloop and its related technologies and applications. In the slightly longer term (or maybe in the short term with a view of creating the business case) minimising the cost of infrastructure will also be a key requirement where the UK has proven experience.
… or putting a loop in the UK?
Since major projects tend to favour local supply chains (with only a few exceptions in highly specialised areas where the local supply chain may be lacking), a good approach to boosting UK involvement in hyperloop technologies might be to build a testing facility in the UK.
Applications of hyperloop could assist with other major infrastructure challenges. For example, linking airports with hyperloop connections could provide an alternative to airport expansion. Linking cities could avoid the need for new road and rail links. Hyperloop could play a part in helping to rebalance the UK economy by enabling commuters to live further from their work, thus taking the pressure off housing in the South East.
One hyperloop developer has proposed a test route between Liverpool and Manchester which could evolve into a commercial hyperloop system. The level of investment needed would be significant, running into the hundreds of millions of pounds, although some indications suggest that hyperloop construction costs may compare favourably to high speed rail costs.
Even if a UK hyperloop facility turns out to be a pipe dream (at least in the near term) the TSC report also highlights applications such as freight pipelines and personal rapid transit systems which use similar technology to that which is needed for a hyperloop but which are more deliverable in the short term – due to their not requiring vacuum tubes or significantly high speeds. These types of systems could therefore take advantage of the hyperloop publicity and excitement and could act as stepping stones towards actual hyperloop deployment in the medium to longer term.
Six steps forward
The report concludes with the following six recommendations for the government that could help focus the attention of UK industry and academia on hyperloop’s potential benefits:
An additional recommendation, which is already being acted upon, is to organise an event focussed on bringing interested UK supply chain partners together to discuss the potential opportunities. This will be held at the Transport Systems Catapult on 4th October 2018. You can now book your tickets for this event here.
These are clearly still early days for hyperloop technology, and this is reflected in the extent to which these recommendations focus on research, reviews and other forms of investigation. Certainly, when it comes to building a full-scale hyperloop facility in the UK, there will be those who favour a “wait and see” approach rather than rushing full tilt towards such a potentially costly and still unproven technology.
Nevertheless, based on the science-fiction-turned-fact that I saw with my own eyes in Nevada and also on the large number of hyperloop-relevant technology areas where the UK could already play a contributory role, my own recommendation is that we should not wait too long before at least exploring the potential this technology has to offer.
Our upcoming conference HYPERLOOP – The next transport revolution? Takes place on the 4th October in Milton Keynes. Get your free ticket here.