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The prototype for the Virgin Hyperloop, in the testing tube the company has installed in the Nevada desert, USA.
The prototype for the Virgin Hyperloop, in the testing tube the company has installed in the Nevada desert, USA. / SUR

What we ought to know about Hyperloop

  • Part of this new transport system's technological development is being carried out in Malaga

  • The main company in the race to commercialise the Hyperloop system is using the old railway units at Bobadilla as a testing laboratory

The concept of Hyperloop is new to many people, and in Malaga nobody would even be talking about it if it were not for the fact that Virgin Hyperloop One, the main company competing to develop this technology commercially, is coming to Malaga province. Virgin has chosen the buildings that the Spanish railway infrastructure firm Adif built for the now-defunct rail test loop project in Bobadilla to create an R+D laboratory. So what is it, in fact? Let's take a closer look at this so-called "fifth mode of transport".

How does Hyperloop work?

The most basic example is the air tubes which can still be found in some supermarkets, where compressed air is used to move canisters containing cash through tubes from the check-out to the office. Basically, the challenge is to move capsules through the interior of a tube which contains a very small amount of air (it would be unsafe if completely empty), with magnetic levitation. By reducing resistance to a minimum the idea is that these vehicles, at least in theory, could reach almost supersonic speeds of 1,200 km/h. Or, to explain it another way, Malaga to Barcelona in one hour.

Although each unit could only hold 30 to 40 people, there would be 'launches' every few minutes, which would make it profitable and also economical, say those in favour of the system. The 'pod', to use the technical term, is driven by electromagnetic propulsion, and the engines can be powered by photovoltaic solar energy. Another interesting point is that there will be no driver: it will be controlled telematically.

Is all this new?

No. Since the 19th century numerous scientists all over the world have had ideas for passenger and cargo transport systems via tubes, using only air propulsion. It was at the start of the 20th century that the possibility of these trains travelling under vacuum was suggested, and later with magnetic levitation and propulsion.

Are any lines in service yet?

None like Hyperloop, in other words using airless tubes, but there are some which use part of the same technology as these capsules. It is called Maglev (short for Magnetic Levitation). At present there are only two of these trains operating commercially in the world, because of the very high energy costs which are reflected in the cost of the tickets. The most important one is the Transrapid, in Shanghai (China), which travels the 30 kilometres from the airport to the city in just over seven minutes. The maximum speed is 431 km/h, and the average for the journey is 250 km/h. The second is the Linimo line near Nagoya (Japan), which was initially built for ExpoAichi, and is still operating. That one is driverless.

What does Elon Musk have to do with Hyperloop?

The creator of Tesla and SpaceX, among other brands, is the visionary who launched a challenge in the summer of 2013 to resume work on all this technology which had barely been taken into account. He generated progress by organising international competitions, and is also taking part in the commercial race although with a lower profile than other firms. Tesla and SpaceX are participating in the manufacture of the capsules and tubes; another of Musk's firms, The Boring Company, specialises in the construction of tunnels with the aim of applying Hyperloop to urban public transport in the USA. In the scientific efforts to advance the new transport system, young researchers from the Polytechnic University of Valencia are playing a leading role; they are part of the Hyperloop UPV team.

One of this pioneer's greatest successes is open hardware, in other words the advances are shared so they can progress more rapidly. This is a new way of seeing business development, rather than the secrecy involved in industrial patents. This way, anyone can see the designs of other teams and improve on them, which makes progress much more effective. Elon Musk's companies can, of course, take advantage of the innovations, but so can others, and this has generated a unique ecosystem where in barely five years there has been progress which would not have been possible if each side had kept its findings to itself.

How many are there?

There are several Hyperloop projects competing in the race for its commercial implantation, but two are most advanced at an international level:

Virgin Hyperloop One: This is the one that wants to set up one of its world laboratories in the Adif units at Bobadilla. Like all the others, it was started after Musk issued his challenge. In 2017 they went into association with Virgin, which is investing a great deal of money in the project. One capsule has already been developed and a tube is being tested in the Nevada desert. One of its challenges is to link Spain and Morocco under the sea. It expects to have three Hyperloops in operation in 2021, mainly in countries in the Persian Gulf.

The other is Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT): It has very recently unveiled its capsule, made almost entirely from carbon fibre and built by Airtificial, formerly Carbures, in El Puerto de Santa María (Cadiz), and hopes it will ready for commercial use at the end of next year. HTT is formed by a group of 40 companies from 38 countries, who aim to make this form of transport a reality in 2020. It has a laboratory in Toulouse (France), where it also wants to create a testing track, in a clear commitment to Europe. Nevertheless, its first commissions have been announced in China and the United Arab Emirates.

Other initiatives: the Valencian Zeleros, Canadian TransPod, American Arrivo, Indian DGWHyperloop and Dutch Hardt Global Mobility are also in the race in the west, while in China companies are working on 'flying trains' which would be even faster than the ones on this system.

What stage is it at?

Five years on, the capsule prototypes have reached maximum speeds of up to 457 km/h, which is slightly higher than the Maglev trains but far from the more than 1,200 km/h at which, on paper at least, they could travel. Nor have safety and legal problems regarding the airless tubes been resolved. This means it is unlikely that the schedule, which expected the first lines to come into service between 2020 and 2021, can be met.