When you enter the Delft Hyperloop office, you mainly see a lot of students behind computers, making calculations. “This is where we’ve done most of the preliminary work, such as the technical design. But right now, most of our work is being done in the workshop, where a real prototype of the train is built.” Here, the future of new transportation is created: the Hyperloop. A train aimed at making future transport safer, more efficient and cheaper.
The above quote is from Tim Houter (23), project leader of Hyperloop Delft. He has temporarily put his plans of doing a masters at TU Delft on hold to work on this project. Meanwhile, there are 30 people in his ‘Delft Hyperloop’ team. Houter: “I haven’t regretted it for a second.”
From Amsterdam to the south of France would cost as much energy as 2 litres of petrol.
— Tim Houter, TU Delft
It all started in 2013, with a competition organised by the American entrepreneur Elon Musk – CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX. He called on technical students all over the world to participate in developing a new type of transportation he had devised: an ultra-fast train he called ‘Hyperloop’. Houter: “I’d heard him talk about the Hyperloop before and he had already piqued my interest then. So when he organised a competition calling on students to participate in its development, I just knew: I have to be a part of this.”
The idea behind the Hyperloop is this: a transportation system involving train pods racing back and forth through a huge low-pressure tube. The tube doesn’t have rails; the train moves by way of a magnetic levitation system. Houter: “So the train is propelled by magnets. As there is hardly any air inside the tube, the train encounters practically no resistance, enabling it to go back and forth at incredible speed, up to around 1,200 kilometres an hour. That’s like going from Amsterdam to Paris in half an hour.”
This method of transportation solves a couple of problems. Houter: “Currently, in the transport sector a great deal of needless energy is wasted on air resistance. If you have ever held your hand outside the window during a car trip, you know how strong the air resistance is. A train or a plane have a much larger surface and travel at a higher speed. So in those cases, air resistance is huge. If you can take away that resistance, transportation will become much more efficient and faster.”
And transportation will also become cheaper, because less energy is used. “As the train is being propelled by magnets, you only need to give it speed when it departs.” So you don’t need an engine. “At its end station you slow down the train and the energy can then be reused,” Houter says. “Besides, the energy would be generated by solar panels on top of the tube. Look at it like this: from Amsterdam to the south of France would cost just about as much energy as 2 litres of petrol or twenty per cent of the battery of a Tesla car.”
How sustainable will transportation by Hyperloop be? How much investment is needed? How much are people willing to pay for ‘faster transport’?
— Michiel Nijdam, Port of Rotterdam Authority
Still only a concept
So far, the Hyperloop is nothing more than a concept and a prototype that is being built. This summer, the prototype will be deployed in a battle against 120 other teams to win first prize in Musk’s contest. “In the qualifying rounds we came in second, just after the MIT team.” The team from Delft did however receive first prize for the most innovative design. “We are particularly strong in the pod’s design: it is extremely light, weighing only 150 kilos.”
The Hyperloop’s ultimate objective is to transport people. “But a really great first step would of course be to transport parcels, so the goods sector. Goods are a bit less sensitive to vibrations than humans and you obviously don’t need to take as many safety measures.”
We are particularly strong in the pod’s design: it is extremely light, weighing only 150 kilos.
— Tim Houter, TU Delft
The team is not just busy working on the technical designs; it is also putting a lot of effort into interesting third parties in the Hyperloop. For example, Marleen van de Kerkhof – a Systems Engineering, Policy Analysis and Management student at the Delft University of Technology and a member of the team – maintains close contacts with politics. “We have approached Mark Rutte prior to his working visit to Elon Musk. And Halbe Zijlstra, parliamentary chairman of the Dutch political party VVD, has also paid us a visit. And I am trying to raise enthusiasm among as many people as possible. Who knows what to expect after the competition; but by then it will definitely be important to have both politics and the business community on our side. If we win first prize and get the chance to actually realise the Hyperloop, then all these contacts will come in very handy.”
One of the possible partners is the Port of Rotterdam Authority. It is starting a collaboration to find out to what extent the port can play a role with respect to the Hyperloop in the future. Obviously, primary focus will be on its technical feasibility. But the revenue model will come a close second. How sustainable will transportation by Hyperloop be? How much investment is needed? How much are people willing to pay for ‘faster transport’?
Even though the Hyperloop is not meant to replace intercontinental ships, Houter says. “It is initially being designed for use on land. Look at it as an addition to the current transport sector. The distances that ships cover at sea are not what a Hyperloop would initially take on, we’re rather thinking of distances covered by, say, inland vessels.”
The most exciting part of the project is whether it is in fact going to happen. Houter: “In terms of conceptual technology it already works. But of course we need to test it extensively before something like this can actually be realised. For instance, at the moment there are no curves, it is simply a straight route. The total cost estimate is also something we need to look at further.” But first, they want to wait and see what will happen this summer, whether they are going to win. Houter: “It is really cool to be working on a concept that is entirely new. It truly makes you feel like a pioneer in a totally new way of transport.”
The Hyperloop: this article is part 3 of a series of articles about innovations that may influence the future of the port and the transport sector. Editorial offices are free to use these articles, videos and infographics. You can download them here.