Mon 19 Sep 2016 - Tech
In 1843, it was called the Eighth Wonder of the World, attracting 50,000 visitors on its first day. But this wasn’t an exhibition or a must-see show, it was London’s Thames Tunnel, which connected the neighborhoods of Rotherhithe and Wapping. Built by Marc Isambard Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Thames Tunnel was an engineering masterpiece, the first ever tunnel to be constructed under a busy, navigable river. As with all world firsts, the project faced many challenges, the geology key among them.
The north side of London is dominated by a solid clay, but to the south-east (where the Thames Tunnel lies), water-drenched sands and gravel are the norm. Early attempts to dig a tunnel through these sands were disastrous, with hundreds of men made sick by exposure to raw sewage from the river, and numerous floods claiming lives. It took the invention of the tunneling shield to make working conditions a little more bearable. In its simplest form, it was an iron frame, split into 36 cells, each large enough for a worker to stand in. The frame supported the tunnel as it was being excavated, which gave bricklayers time to shore up the walls. Using this process didn’t entirely solve the issue of flooding, but it did allow the Thames Tunnel to progress slowly, but surely. In the end, construction of the 1332 foot-long tunnel took upwards of 16 years. Despite its impressive age, it remains in use.
These days, tunnels just aren’t considered to be a ‘big deal’ by most people. They are very much seen as a normal part of our modern landscape, and between transport and water supply, most of us rely on them every single day. But it’s in relatively recent years that this has been the case. More record-breaking tunnels have been constructed since the year 2000 than in the previous 150 years. In fact, of the 50 longest tunnels on Earth, 30 came into being since the turn of the millennium. And the sector is continuing to grow, with at least 20 rail, road, water or waste tunnels longer than 9 miles currently under construction, with another 10 to 15 at the advanced planning stage. One thing that’s driving this growth is cost – on average, the cost of tunnel construction has been dropping by 4% every year. In built-up areas like cities, tunnels are often cheaper to construct (around £50 million per kilometer in the UK) than equivalent surface structures.
The cost of tunnel construction has been dropping by 4% every year. In cities, tunnels are often cheaper to construct than equivalent surface structures.
While the Brunel shield made tunneling practical, it is the tunnel boring machine, or TBM, that heralded the current golden age of tunneling, allowing us to dream bigger and to dig further and faster ever before. TBMs are giant, high-tech earthworms that use a rotating cutter face covered in hard, tungsten carbide teeth to munch whatever is in its way. The ground-up rock is mixed with other compounds inside the TBM, to produce a material with the consistency of toothpaste that can be reused to build wetland nature reserves, among other things. While the face is busy digging, the TBM’s hydraulic arm lifts curved sections of reinforced concrete into place, building the tunnel like a circular jigsaw. Europe’s most famous TBMs can be found on London’s Crossrail project. Weighing in at 1,100 tons and measuring 470 feet long, these behemoths can each construct 4.3 miles of tunnels a year. That’s 190 times faster than Brunel could manage!
The world’s largest TBM was launched in June 2015, and will create an undersea link between mainland China and Hong Kong International Airport. With a diameter of 57 feet, it’s slightly larger than Seattle’s TBM, Bertha. She recently restarted excavating a new aqueduct under the city, after a delay of almost three years, due to damage and subsequent repair of the machine. And this brings us back to reality. As tunnel projects become more complex and the demands more extreme, delays in projects may well become more prevalent.
To my mind, excavating tunnels suitable to house Hyperloop One’s vacuum trains will push existing tunneling technology to its limits, and it’s partly thanks to the enormous lengths and short timescales involved. Earlier this year, Gotthard Base Tunnel, the longest and deepest rail tunnel in the world opened in the Swiss Alps. The 35 mile (57 km) long twin-bore tunnels are predicted to remove a million heavy-duty trucks from the roads, but they took almost 20 years to construct. For Hyperloop One, this is a snail’s pace. “One of our major challenges is the economy of building a super-high-speed system quickly”, said Hyperloop One Senior Geotechnical Engineer, Brandon Kluzniak. “TBMs are pretty cool, but they still build tunnels slowly. We want to go much, much faster than today’s systems can manage. This shouldn’t mean that we’ll need to completely rethink how we build tunnels, but it’s likely that our ideal solution will use a combination of technologies.”
So how big is the challenge exactly? Well, in July, FS Links published a preliminary feasibility study for a Hyperloop One route that would run between Stockholm and Helsinki, a distance of more than 310 miles. With just 84.5 miles of track in Sweden and 98 miles in Finland, it’s clear that most of this route would be undersea. If the Hyperloop One team achieve this engineering feat, it will dwarf the current record holder – the 33.5 mile-long Seikan Tunnel in Japan.
Hyperloop One isn’t looking at tunnels just yet though. Its DevLoop test track, currently under construction, will use sections of steel tube roughly 11 feet in diameter, elevated several yards above the ground. But, longer term, their high-speed freight and (eventually) passenger system is likely to move – at least partly –underground. “Tunnels let you optimize routes so there’s the least amount of disturbance to existing landscapes. And, without tunnels, it would hard to connect urban centers. Both are fundamentally important factors for the Hyperloop system,” says Brandon.
There may well be lessons to be learned from elsewhere in the construction industry. Norwegian engineers have a rather special tunnel in mind - one that floats. Officially called an Archimedes Bridge, it has been proposed as a way to cross one of Norway’s many fjords. It would use a combination of floats and tethers to hold the structure stable, making it indistinguishable from a traditional tunnel for those driving through it. With Hyperloop’s ambitions targeting a European route, it couldn’t hurt to look towards innovative tunneling approaches like this.
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We're a privately-held company on a mission to create fast, effortless journeys that expand possibilities and eliminate the barriers of distance and time.
There are too many people caught bumper-to-bumper in traffic, who have to make a hard choice with their family on where to live and work, and who are limited in their access to experiences and opportunities. We're building a system that will give back time and deliver the travel experience of the future.
The number of cars is set to double worldwide by 2040, same with air and trucking. We are already dealing with the effects of pollution, lack of access, and congestion. If we only invest in the same technologies we’ve had for more than a century, tomorrow will look like today, only much worse. It’s been over a century since the Wright Brothers first showed us human flight was possible. It’s time for a new era in transportation capable of carrying us forward for the next 100 years.
To date, we have received over $400 million.
A major investor of ours is DP World, a leading enabler of global trade who sees the potential of sustainable hyperloop-enabled cargo systems. Additionally, we are backed by the Virgin Group, an industry leader across rail, aviation, ships, and even spacecrafts. For more on our investors, visit the company page.
Virgin Hyperloop is the only hyperloop company that has a strategic partnership with a mass transportation company, the Virgin Group, an industry leader across rail, aviation, ships, and even spacecrafts. Another key partner of ours is DP World, a leading enabler of global trade who sees the potential of sustainable hyperloop-enabled cargo systems. Other industry-leading partners include Spirit AeroSystems, KPMG, Foster + Partners, Systra, BIG, SNCF, GE, Deutsche Bahn, Black & Veatch, McKinsey, Deloitte, Jacobs, Turner & Townsend, ARUP, and Steer, among others.
No, there’s no connection with Elon Musk.
We aren't just building a hyperloop; we're building a network of public and private partners to scale an integrated supply chain ecosystem. Our business model is based on partnerships that create local jobs and opportunities for those who choose to invest in this technology. We are working at the highest level of governments around the globe to put in place commercial agreements to make hyperloop a reality.
Hyperloop is a new mode of transportation designed to eliminate the barriers of distance and time for both people and freight. It can travel at speeds approaching 700mph, connecting cities like metro stops - and it has zero direct emissions. The journeys can be booked on demand so there’s no wait time or delays.
With hyperloop, vehicles, called pods, accelerate gradually via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube. The pod floats along the track using magnetic levitation and glides at airline speeds for long distances due to ultra-low aerodynamic drag.
Yes. We’ve successfully run hundreds of tests at our full-scale prototype in the Nevada desert. On November 8, 2020, the first passengers traveled safely on a hyperloop – making transportation history. This test demonstrated that we can safely put a person in a near-vacuum environment, and our entire safety approach was validated by an independent third party.
We estimate that the top speed for a passenger vehicle or light cargo will be 670 miles per hour or 1080 kilometers per hour. That is about 3 times faster than high-speed rail and 10-15 times faster than traditional rail. The average speed vehicles travel will vary based on the route and customer requirements.
A perfect vacuum would decrease the drag on the vehicle even more, but not significantly. We have already gotten rid of 99.9% of the air in the tube. Lower levels of vacuum than this are important if you are performing scientific experiments, but the cost would not be worthwhile.
Hyperloop is an entirely new mode - think the best of trains, planes, and the metro. Hyperloop is on-demand, offering flexible travel schedules with no stops, no transfers, and no weather delays – all at speeds about 3 times faster than high-speed-rail and less cost. Hyperloop is highly efficient, with a smaller environmental impact than high-speed rail because the closed system can be tunneled below or elevated above ground, avoiding dangerous at-grade crossings. The VH system is 100% electric and can reach higher speeds than high-speed rail for less energy due to our proprietary electric motor and low-drag environment.
Fast, effortless journeys go hand-in-hand with journeys where everything works reliably without interference, and where all passengers feel comfortable and safe. The Virgin Hyperloop is designed to be inherently safer than other modes, with multiple redundancies in place. Our system operates autonomously in an enclosed tube and is not susceptible to weather delays, accidents from at-grade crossings, human error, or power outages. Our proprietary high-speed switching architecture eliminates unsafe track configurations and moving trackside parts, a failure point of traditional rail with mechanical switches.
As new mode, we have to prove our safety case to regulators and work with them to develop a regulatory framework, so passengers can ride the hyperloop in years not decades. We are encouraged by the support we are seeing at the local and federal level around the world to support hyperloop certification based on the fundamentals of safe operating that are already standard practice. Our goal is to achieve safety certification by 2025. We are on track to meet this goal and have unveiled West Virginia as the home of the world’s first Hyperloop Certification Center (HCC). This announcement builds off of significant progress around the world on the regulatory front. In July 2020, the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) Secretary Elaine Chao and the Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) Council unveiled the guidance document on a clear regulatory framework for hyperloop in the United States. In the EU, the European Commission (EC) has just released the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy and hyperloop is explicitly identified as a game-changing mobility technology. We are also working closely with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DGMOVE) and Shift2Rail to deliver the next wave of sustainable mobility through robust regulatory standards. In India, the Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA) to the Government of India, Prof. Vijayraghavan, has set up an independent committee called the Consultative Group on Future of Transportation (CGFT) to explore the regulatory path for hyperloop. For more, visit our regulatory progress pages.
While flying through a tube at more than 1000km/h might seem like a thrill ride, the truth is we are able to mitigate any uncomfortable acceleration forces within our controlled environment. The journey will be so smooth, you could sip a coffee the whole time without spilling a single drop. Normal acceleration and deceleration of 0.20 Gs will feel similar to a train. As a comparison, flooring a typical sedan gives between 0.4-0.5 Gs and commercial airplanes see 0.3-0.5Gs depending on the plane and load.
Pods will continue to travel safely to the next portal even with a large breach. Our response to a breach would be to intentionally repressurize the tube with small valves placed along the route length while engaging pod brakes to safely bring all pods to rest before it is deemed safe to continue to the next portal. A sustained leak could impact performance (speed) but would not pose a safety issue due to vehicle and system architectural design choices. This assessment is based on a solid understanding and analysis of the complex vehicle load behaviors during such an event.
Without a massive leap forward, pollution from the transportation industry is expected to almost double by 2050 - well above the carbon budget. By combining an ultra-efficient electric motor, magnetic levitation, and a low-drag environment, the VH system can reach airline speeds for 5-10x less energy (depends on route length) and can go faster than high-speed rail using less energy. In regions like the Middle East, we could power the system completely by solar panels which cover the tube. As fighting against climate change becomes an existential issue for cities across the globe, hyperloop will create a new, shared, electric mobility model for helping to permanently reform an industry with some of the world’s highest carbon emissions.
We are designing Virgin Hyperloop to be more efficient than other modes of transportation. Modern jetliners use up to 10 times the energy we use per passenger-mile over the entire journey. We can cruise at 500 miles per hour for less energy (per passenger) than an electric car doing 60 miles per hour. At peak speed, the VH system consumes approximately 75 watt hours per passenger kilometer (Wh/pax-km). To put this in perspective, the fastest conventional maglev train travels at about half our speed and consumes 33% more energy.
Our system is 100% electric with zero direct emissions. We're energy-agnostic. Our system can draw power from whichever energy sources are available along the route and support a transition to a renewable energy-powered future. In regions like the Middle East, we can completely power the system with solar panels which cover the tube.
It’s similar those new electric vehicles that are so quiet they need to create noise to indicate movement. With hyperloop, we eliminate sources of mechanical noise, like wheels on track, and we actually have a sound barrier inherent in our tube design
DP World Cargospeed is a global brand for hyperloop-enabled cargo systems operated by DP World and enabled by Virgin Hyperloop technology. These systems will deliver freight at the speed of flight and closer to the cost of trucking for fast, sustainable, and efficient delivery of palletized cargo.
The focus would be on high-priority, on-demand goods – fresh food, medical supplies, electronics, and more.
With DP World Cargospeed, deliveries can be completed in hours versus days with greater reliability and fewer delays. It will expand freight transportation capacity by connecting with existing modes of road, rail, ports, and air transport, and will provide greater connectivity with manufacturing parks, economic zones, distribution centers, and regional urban centers. This can shrink inventory lead times, help reduce finished goods inventory, and cut required warehouse space and cost by 25%. DP World Cargospeed networks can also enable just-in-time, agile manufacturing practices.
The Virgin Hyperloop is unique in that it doesn’t need to be passenger-only or cargo-only. We are designing a mixed-use system that fully utilizes system capacity while maximizing economic and social benefits. However, it is possible to run cargo commercial operations while certification and regulation are still ongoing for passenger use.
We are working with the most visionary governments around the world to make sure you can ride the hyperloop in years, not decades. Our goal is to have operational systems in the late 2020s. Our ability to meet that goal will depend on how fast the regulatory and statutory processes move.
We are working with visionary governments and partners around the world to make hyperloop a reality today. To learn more about our projects around the world, visit our progress page.
Capital and operating costs will range widely based on the route. We recently released a study that showed our linear costs are 60-70% that of high-speed rail projects. In addition, we expect the operational costs to be significantly lower than existing forms of transportation.
It’s simple – if it’s not affordable, people won't use it. We are looking to build something that will expand opportunities for the masses, so they can live in one city with their family and work in another. Currently, that kind of high-speed transport is not feasible for most people. The exact ticket price will vary for each route, but a recent study showed that riding a hyperloop in Missouri could cost less than the gas needed to drive.
We are in the business of serving local needs, not the other way around. Public and private support is key. In some cases, we will respond to solicited bids with partners when we feel the technology matches the project’s objectives. In other cases, we will make an unsolicited bid for a project when we see that hyperloop could offer a unique solution to market needs.
While the technology is different, the process for building a hyperloop is similar to that of building a highway, railway, or any other type of linear infrastructure. The first stage is project development. This phase includes feasibility studies, and then more detailed engineering reports and environmental impact studies. Once a project is approved to move forward, a consortium is formed to finance and deliver on the project.
Many infrastructure projects succeed or fail based on right-of-way issues. We are designing a system that requires only about half the right-of-way as high-speed rail and can more easily adapt to existing right-of-ways. At high speeds, the VH system has a 4.5 times tighter turn radius compared to high-speed rail and can climb grades that are 6 times steeper, reducing the disturbance at crossings. Portals will be purposely integrated into and support existing communities and landscapes. Low noise levels will expand opportunities to build hyperloops closer to the city center.
Hyperloop also holds enormous promise for rural communities. Virgin Hyperloop systems can be built below or above ground, which means no one’s farm needs to be cut in half. Our system enables rural areas to retain residents, who can now have more access to urban job centers, educational opportunities, and health care facilities. Additionally, hyperloop could enable freight distribution centers to be placed in rural areas, leading to job growth and industrial clusters. After a system is built, there is the opportunity to add additional on and off-ramps, supporting a greater number of people along the route.
Transportation infrastructure has traditionally relied on extensive government funding. This is because the benefits of clean, safe, and efficient transportation are enjoyed by the entire community, not just the user buying a ticket. However, most existing mass transportation modes are unprofitable and hindered by existing infrastructure built in the past century or by legacy systems. We want to change that and are focused on public-private partnerships. By developing a new mode of transportation from scratch, we're able to leverage technological developments that have occurred in the last century, especially the IT revolution. We're able to keep maintenance costs low, energy efficiency high, and transport tens of thousands of passengers per hour. This keeps margins and accessibility high, contributing to more financially attractive returns than if the corridor was served by existing modes. These benefits aren’t just hypothetical. While this is an exceptional case due to high demand, a third-party evaluation found that our Mumbai-Pune Hyperloop Project could be funded 100% by private capital. In the U.S. we see enormous potential to attract investment from the private sector, leveraging public investments. Involving government stakeholders as well as potential private investors early in the project development process is critical.
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