A Brave New World – What It Will Take to Realize the Hyperloop Dream

Hyperloop – Elon Musk’s project, now venture-capital-backed, to shuttle passengers between cities via tubes at the speed of sound — is shaping up to be to the 21st century what the railroad was to the 19th century.

Both are visionary: one connected the coasts and permitted safe travel across the continent and the other could provide super-fast, efficient commuter passage between major cities. Both were rejected initially as the stuff of fiction: too theoretical to work, too expensive to build. Both were aided by the technology of their day, railways by the might of the industrial revolution, Hyperloop by the computer and simulation technology. And both, when the history of the 21st century finally is written, will be seen as revolutionary turning points in modes of transportation.

The U.S. railway faced many of the same challenges Hyperloop faces today. Its advocates struggled with questions of land acquisition. Transportation was a give-and-take between the public and private sectors. Ideas came before technology was ready to fulfill them. By the time automobiles became popularized in the early 20th century, however, railways dominated the landscape, covering hundreds of thousands of miles, thanks in no small part to government assistance in land acquisition and railway infrastructure.

Now, Hyperloop has many hurdles ahead of it. And it’s still early to claim, if at all, that there will be hundreds of thousands of miles of tubes dotting the landscape before the year 2100. But the spirit of the project has the potential to change the way we travel. In the future, we will travel and send goods more quickly between major cities, maybe going so far as to live in one and commute to another. Imagine the potential of a world where you can travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes!

Musk, for one, is not leading the charge in implementing the Hyperloop idea. After the Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO released his 57-page white paper on the subject in 2013, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Inc. — a JumpStartFund subsidiary that’s working on the project in a crowd-sourced fashion — took over. That same year, ANSYS released simulation examples that showed Hyperloop’s proposed methods – a passenger-capsule travelling with little to no air resistance through a tube at approximately the speed of sound – would work if built to specifications. Recently, another Hyperloop organization announced it had venture capital backing from an Uber investor.

The proposed Los Angeles-to-San Francisco route also might change, with some people citing Las Vegas as a likely destination. Others have raised the possibility of building outside of the U.S. all together, in Dubai or elsewhere.

hyperloop capsule aerodynamicsWhat we do know is that simulation has a critical role to play in the Hyperloop’s success. Even the simplest physical prototypes will cost tens of millions of dollars to construct and test, not to mention years or decades of effort. But simulation can solve many of the design challenges right away, with virtual prototypes inside a computer. Many of the design questions that will arise in this monumental task can be asked and answered readily with simulation. What would be the best shape of the capsule? How much energy would be needed to operate the Hyperloop? Will the safety mechanisms perform as expected in case of emergencies?

Take note, engineers. You’ve got a leg up on those historical figures building the railways 150 years ago. There’s no end to what ANSYS can help you learn about Hyperloop before you start laying track, buying land and building costly prototypes.

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Sandeep Sovani

About Sandeep Sovani

Dr. Sandeep Sovani is Director for the global automotive industry at ANSYS. He holds a B.E in Mechanical Engineering from University of Pune, India, M.Tech., from Indian Institute of Technology Chennai, India and Ph.D. from Purdue University, USA. Dr. Sovani has been actively involved in various areas of automotive technology and business for two decades. Dr. Sovani has previously worked with Tata Motors, India. Under a grant from the Cummins Engine Company, he has conducted research on IC Engines at Purdue University and recently served as an Adjunct Professor of Engineering at Lawrence Technological University, Michigan, USA. Dr. Sovani has authored more than 40 papers, articles, reports and has delivered numerous invited lectures at academic and industry conferences. He is the recipient of Lloyd Withrow Distinguished Speaker Award from SAE International (Society of Automotive Engineers). Dr. Sovani is also the founder of Hybrid Electric Vehicles Michigan group, a professional networking group of HEV engineers, and its sister groups in Brazil and UK. Dr. Sovani presently is member of SAE International and serves as a technical session chair and organizer on the society’s vehicle aerodynamics committee. Dr. Sovani is also a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Sigma Xi, MENSA International, and other societies.

3 thoughts on “A Brave New World – What It Will Take to Realize the Hyperloop Dream

  1. Dear Dr.Sovani, How do you design the air bearings of the train moving with such an acceleration, Have you obtained any data on this front, if so, could you please send some of the articles supporting this. J S Rao, Addl.GM/ retd, BHEL/R&D, Hyderabad, Inida.

  2. Hi Dr. Rao,

    In my opinion the air bearings are the most difficult part of the hyperloop. To my knowledge, there isn’t much prior art in this area and significant new research will be needed to develop the air bearings. The attributes that make hyperloop’s air bearings unique are: (1) ultra low ambient pressure (and density) (2) compressibility effects of exhaust air and external air flowing over bearings, and the interaction of the two – which will form complex shock structures (or will at least have the tendency to form such complex structures if perturbed outside of the operational conditions margin, making operation highly unstable) (3) extremely narrow margin of lift – i.e. the bearing will need to maintain lift distance very precisely through out its operation. If the lift distance is increased, the capsule will bump on the top of the pipe, and if it is reduced, it will scrape the bottom.

    There is an additional issue – not directly about the air bearing design, but as a consequence of having air bearings: Air exhausted from the air bearings will occupy space around the capsule, so the capsule diameter will have to be progressively reduced from the front to the back, reducing payload space inside the capsule.

    Due to these constraints, I think air bearing design is going to be highly challenging. I even doubt, whether air bearings are the right choice for capsule levitation. Air bearings will need to be augmented by wheels that provide primary levitation until the capsule reaches considerable speed. Or perhaps it will be better to just use wheels at all speeds. I think it might be possible (and easier) to develop wheels that can operate at ultra high rpm to support the capsule’s max speed.

    One thing is for sure though – Whether wheels or air bearings – they will need to be installed on both the bottom and the top of the capsule to keep it stable at the center of the pipe.


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