Virgin Hyperloop One Is Bringing Elon Musk’s Dream to Life

To suck the air out of the DevLoop, Hyperloop One used a row of small pumps, housed in a metal building to one side. These are off the shelf components, typically used in steel factories or meat processing plants (it’s probably better not to ask for details). They can drop the pressure inside the tube to under 1/1000th of atmospheric conditions at sea level, the equivalent of what you get at 200,000 feet. By that point, the few air molecules left are not going to get in the way of a speeding vehicle. At the right hand end of the tube, one section of pipe, about 100 feet long, operates as an airlock. A 12-foot steel disc slides across to separate that chunk from the longer tube, so that pods or other vehicles can be loaded in and out without having to pump the whole tube down to vacuum, which takes about four hours.

The company plans to run these tubes along pylons, which should be easy enough, and lets it avoid some of the engineering work that comes with laying heavy rail tracks along the ground. This short tube isn’t quite level, sloping down with the contour of the land, which a production system could do, gently, too. “That allows us to minimize the cost of the civil structures while keeping our elevations in check,” says Mock.

Where the tube meets each T-shaped pillar of concrete holding up the 2.2 million pound structure, sits a sliding bracket. Any civil engineer has wrestled with metal’s habit of expanding and contracting as temperatures change, and the Hyperloop crew in the desert is no exception. Even this relatively short section of steel changes length by several feet. “It moves a lot, and we had to account for that in the design,” says Mock. A full sized Hyperloop, running, say, 350 miles from LA to San Francisco, would need some sort of sliding expansion joints, which the company says its design will accommodate.

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Since introducing its prototype pod to the tube last summer, Hyperloop One has completed some 200 test runs at varying speeds, collecting data on every variable it can track. In December, it went for pure speed, sending the pod to 240 mph in just a few seconds—a new hyperloop record. (Expect to see a lot of those in the next few years.)

“We plan to have a single type of pod that can do both cargo and people,” says Anita Sengupta, who’s in charge of systems engineering. Moving inanimate cargo is a logical starting point, since you can’t kill it if something goes wrong, and Hyperloop One has a few use cases in mind, like moving containers from the Port of LA to an inland depot, so polluting trucks don’t have to crowd through congested urban areas.

The company has plenty of competition in the race to realize Elon Musk’s dream. Arrivo, founded by Hyperloop One co-founder and former top engineer Brogan BamBrogan, plans to build a “hyperloop inspired system” in Denver. Student teams around the world compete in a SpaceX-sponsored challenge, using a short tube Musk built in Los Angeles. And the Big Idea Man himself seems to be back in the game, saying he’d like to pop a hyperloop or two into the tunnels he’s digging around the country.

Of course, solving these engineering riddles only gets you part of the way there—then come the fights over land rights, the environmental impact studies, the political wrangling. and the funding questions that make infrastructure one of the toughest businesses around. But if Hyperloop One can cut through it all, this patch of desert will likely see a lot more visitors who aren’t there to see the tortoises.

Loop There It Is

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