A chemist put out a video pointing out huge flaws in billionaire Elon Musk’s proposed high-speed transportation system called the “Hyperloop.”
Dr. Phil Mason, a former Cornell University chemist who makes educational videos about science, laid out the Hyperloop’s problems in a 29-minute YouTube video Sunday that already has more than 141,000 views.
Musk’s planned Hyperloop would be a long series of six-foot high steel tubes, which air would be pumped out of until reaching near-vacuum pressures. Capsules carrying passengers would then travel through the tube at speeds up to 800 miles per hour, as they wouldn’t be subject to air resistance. Musk’s plans have inspired several different companies to pursue this technology.
Mason constructed a mini-Hyperloop, 100 times smaller than the real-life proposal, to demonstrate the potentially disastrous results of Musk’s plans. Dr. Mason characterized the Hyperloop in the video as something that “sounds great, but in reality its bullshit made up by snake-oil salesmen.”
1: If Anything Goes Wrong, Everybody Dies
Musk’s Hyperloop project “might be better described as all the problems of space travel while traveling in a gun barrel at the speed of sound,” Dr. Phil Mason states in the video. “Any failure whatsoever will rip though that 2 centimeter outer tube like candy. Now sure, anybody in the capsule would die pretty much instantly in the event of a crash…but a single breach in the Hyperloop would probably kill everybody else in the Hyperloop because air would rush into the tube at about the speed of sound.”
Any individual capsule crashing would cause a cascading failure that would prompt a pressure wave to shoot down the tube at the speed of sound, destroying all the other capsules. Dr. Mason states that the pressure wave caused by a Hyperloop crash would probably be larger than the over-pressure associated with a nuclear weapon, which can kill people and would certainly wreck the rest of the tube.
Additionally, any rupture or crack in the Hyperloop capsule for any reason would expose the passengers to hard vacuum, causing them to die in exactly the same way they would in deep space.
Dr. Mason previously conducted a small scale test simulating a small crack in the tube that would let air in. The resulting pressure change wrecked the tube and accelerated the mini Hyperloop to levels that would have killed its passengers.
2: Its Probably Physically Impossible To Build The Hyperloop
For the Hyperloop to work, it would need a way to pump out roughly 2 million cubic meters of air from its tubes and make sure that the air stays out of a 373 mile-long pipe with walls less than an inch thick. In comparison, the world’s largest vacuum chamber only pumps out about 1.5 percent as much air and requires enormous amounts of structural reinforcement.
Making a vacuum chamber that long would be a huge technical challenge, as the pressure of the air outside the tube would push against the tube with the force of roughly 10 tons per square meter. That’s a huge amount of force to place on a steel tube with walls less than an inch thick. The tube would also have to take the vibration force of a 15 ton capsule going through it at the speed of sound. Merely creating such an enormous near-vacuum chamber and the infrastructure necessary to pump out all the air could be impossible.
3: Heat Would Destroy The Hyperloop’s Track
The proposed Hyperloop would be built in the heat of a California desert out of steel, which can greatly expand and change its shape as the temperature changes. Mason calculated that between the coldest and hottest days in that location, the Hyperloop would expand by about the length of three football fields, which would utterly wreck the tube.
The kind of expansion joints used to solve similar problems with bridges wouldn’t be suitable for a vacuum tube. The Hyperloop would require roughly 6,000 expansion joints that could simultaneously help maintain the tube’s vacuum. If any one of these 6,000 or so moving parts broke, the entire system would collapse as air flooded into it.
Dr. Mason summarized the Hyperloop’s plans to deal with the issue as “they haven’t done even the simplest expansion calculations.”
4: Hyperloop Would Be Incredibly Vulnerable To Terrorism
Merely shooting a few holes in the thin tubing surrounding the Hyperloop’s vacuum would create air pockets which would trigger the same kind of cascading failure caused by a crash.
Incredibly tiny holes created by modest rifle grade weaponry could trigger the kind of cascading failure that would kill everybody in the system. To make matters worse, the 373 mile length of the Hyperloop and the fact that it would run down the middle of the freeway would make it effectively impossible to defend from terrorists.
Dr. Mason compared the terrorism risks of the Hyperloop to air travel by saying “any crazy with an anti-material rifle could shoot holes in the tube which would probably be fatal to almost the whole system.” In comparison, Mason noted that “one plane crash does not destroy the entire infrastructure and kill everyone else flying the same route.”
5: The Hyperloop Will Probably Cost WAY More Than Its Formal Estimates
Musk’s other critics have also cast doubt on the alleged speed and low cost of the Hyperloop, which are the most important elements of Musk’s plan. Michael Anderson, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California Berkeley, predicted that construction costs of the system would reach $100 billion — almost 20 times more than Musk’s cost estimates of $6 billion. The extra cost would make the economics of the Hyperloop totally nonviable.
Mason states estimates that Musk and others behind the Hyperloop concept “seem to have forgotten a zero off the end of their budget.”
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