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Elon Musk's Hype-loop

13 October 2017

It's going to change the world; apparently.

Elon Musk has decided that a great idea from the 1930s (pneumatic tubes with little capsules in them which can whiz about at great speed) is due for the big-time again in the 21st century.

Musk wants to build some "big" vacuum tubes that will connect major population centres and allow special pods (trains) to travel at supersonic speeds; speeds that will put airliners to shame as a method of getting quickly from place to place.

Seriously?

This plan has already been debunked by numerous people who have the scientific qualifications to do so

One popular YouTube vlogger "Thunderfoot" has already posted a number of "Hyperloop Busted" videos in which he seeks to debunk the claims made for this technology and highlight the "hype" that is being bandied about.

But now, Virgin Group's Richard Branson is about to throw a fist-full of money at Musk's Hyperloop project.

Surely, if Mr Branson is willing to risk his own money then the Hyperloop must be a viable technology -- right?

Well I'm still on the fence.

Thunderfoot makes some seemingly sensible points -- but then again, he has shown on a number of occasions that he is woefully ignorant in many areas relating to engineering.

However, even if all the engineering hurdles can be overcome, I think the Hyperloop faces some far more worrying problems and risks.

For a start, any air leak in one of the pods puts its occupants at huge risk of being exposed to the near-vacuum inside the tube. The same is true (albeit to a lesser extent) when flying at 11,000 metres in an airliner but at least airliners can descend fairly quickly to lower altitudes in the event of depressurization. If similar decompression occurs in the middle of a long stretch between stations, occupants may be doomed.

Even if a temporary oxygen supply was available, the near-vacuum pressure would cause their blood to boil and they would die a slow and incredibly painful death as a result.

Then there's the terror threat.

Oh yes... if we can't have nice things (like drones and real metal forks on planes) due to the threat of terrorists mis-using them then the Hyperloop has to be a complete non-starter.

The mild steel tube from which the loop is constructed is a mere 20mm thick and thus becomes highly susceptible to the effects of a high-powered rifle or even a stick of dynamite.

Thousands of Km of pipeline (which must be above ground for a number of reasons) are therefore hugely vulnerable to terror attacks. It would be impossible to adequately protect these tubes from bad actors and much of the loop would be in sparsely inhabited areas where terrorists could attack and escape with little chance of being caught.

Sure, a single attack may only kill a few dozen people -- but it would also take the loop out of commission for days or weeks at a time.

Then there is the cost.

The capital cost of building a tube between major cities is immense -- and that cost would have to be recouped by way of the ticket fees. With tickets selling for a decided premium over an airliner seat -- or even a seat on a chartered flight, the Hyperloop would become something like the Concorde, a premium service with a very small market.

And of course, who the hell wants to cover the length and breadth of the USA while stuck in a steel tube with no view, no fresh air and little to do?

I guess Branson is simply demonstrating his eccentricity by investing in Musk's folly -- but he can afford to do it so good luck to him.

Ultimately however, I wish the money going into this venture was being better-spent on technologies that could help more than just extremely rich businessmen and political figures who want to save an hour or two in their commute time.

What do readers think? Hyper or hype?

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