Test tube transport: the Hyperloop nears reality

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar, in association with WSJ custom studios


Source: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Source: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Imagine traveling in capsules sucked through a tube using low air pressure and magnetic acceleration to achieve speeds of up to 760 miles (1,223 km) per hour. That’s the idea of the California Hyperloop, which could eventually cut the travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to a mere 30 minutes, compared with today’s one-hour flight or six-hour car journey.

As soon as next year, a full-scale test track will begin construction in Quay Valley, a proposed sustainable community located between California’s two major metropolises.

The Hyperloop is a system that not only makes sense because it’s cheaper to construct, but it’s also sustainable so it’s cheaper to run,” says Dirk Ahlborn, chief executive officer of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Inc. “It changes the world.”

Tesla founder Elon Musk first laid out his Hyperloop vision in 2013 and invited others to take up the challenge. Turning the idea into a full-scale model in just three years may seem fast, but, as Mr. Ahlborn points out, it took a decade to get to the moon—“a way more difficult task,” he says. “The Hyperloop technology sounds like science fiction but, in the end, everything we’re doing already exists. The Quay Valley track is necessary to find out how to optimize the technology.”

The Hyperloop concept is similar to the pneumatic tubes used by banks to carry cash and documents, except that the passenger capsules would be sucked through the tube by controlled propulsion. A capsule (with large doors for speedy boarding) would enter a tightly sealed exterior shell. The tubes would probably be constructed from steel—although other materials, including fiberglass, are being considered—and covered with solar panels to supply the system’s energy. Low air pressure—of around 100 Pascals—would reduce air resistance inside the tube, while magnetic levitation and an air cushion would allow the capsule to hover above the tube’s surface. The straight track would further aid speed. As on a flight, passengers would sense how fast they are moving only when the capsule accelerates, slows or turns.


Hyperloop. Source: Forbes

Hyperloop. Source: Forbes

The Quay Valley track will allow engineers to work out optimum capsule size and boarding procedures. Each capsule is currently expected to seat 28 passengers and depart every 30 seconds during peak times, allowing a full-size Hyperloop to transport some 3,360 passengers an hour.

The Hyperloop would be elevated on pylons, making it possible to place the route above existing infrastructure such as highways, while also simplifying the process of obtaining right of way and minimizing the environmental impact.

More importantly, the pylons would be flexible enough to withstand earthquakes, in the way that pylons built in the 1970s to carry Alaska’s oil pipeline have proved resilient to such shocks, Mr. Ahlborn notes. As an enclosed system, the Hyperloop would also be impervious to harsh weather.

Perhaps more revolutionary than the technology is the way the Hyperloop team itself works. As well as partnering with companies and universities, more than 300 experts from 21 countries have been brought onto the team, working remotely online. Although they don’t get paid—most hold day jobs as engineers—they do get company stock options. “They’re driven by passion,” says Mr. Ahlborn.

The Hyperloop is groundbreaking in a commercial sense, too. It is expected to cost $16 billion to build, versus $68 billion for a comparable California high-speed rail line. Ticket prices for the Los Angeles-San Francisco stretch, at $20- $30, would be far cheaper than flying, and even that business model is open to disruption. “Do we need tickets?” asks Mr. Ahlborn. “Or are there other ways in which we can generate enough income.” Maybe the Hyperloop could “make more money having more people ride and we can say it’s free. Or maybe it’s free at certain times, and at peak times it costs a bit,” he adds.

The Hyperloop turns conventional infrastructure on its head, from its technology to its crowdsourcing. “Usually these things are done behind closed doors in a boardroom. We’re trying to be open. We’re using the community to do everything,” Mr. Ahlborn says. The Hyperloop “is a first for a lot of things.”

For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Green design brings nature into the urban jungle

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar*

Dense RainforestA jungle is green and leafy, and the urban jungle should be the same, right?

Since 2010, more people live in cities than in the countryside for the first time in human history. The trend is expected to speed up in developing countries, with more than 60% of the world’s population living in urban areas by mid-century, the United Nations predicts.

Bringing nature into cities can make urban environments more sustainable as well as more aesthetic, more comfortable and healthier.

“Many architects today already claim to do green design, some to a greater level of authenticity than others. I contend that in the next five to 10 years just about every architect and student will do green design as second nature in their work,” says Ken Yeang, a principal with T.R. Hamzah and Yeang, a Malaysian architectural firm focusing on ecoarchitecture, and of Ken Yeang Design International in the U.K. “Green design is just one of the criteria for good design.”

Architects often see green design as a matter of certification, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes, or the Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) in the U.K. Beyond aiming for certification, “I take the holistic view of an ecologist,” he says. “I see green design as bio-integrating everything that we as humans make and do on the planet with the natural environment in a benign and seamless way.”

That requires integrating flora and fauna, water, humans and the built environment in a holistic way. “We start design by looking at the ecology of the land and see how we can bring more nature back to a location and bio-integrate nature with the physical built environment,” Mr. Yeang says.

The Solaris

The Solaris, designed by Mr. Yeang and part of the Fusionopolis research and development park in Singapore, has more than 8,000 square meters (9,567 square yards) of landscaping—13% more than the original site—thanks to roof gardens, planted terraces and a 1.5-kilometer (0.9-mile) ramp of continuous vegetation that spirals up the 15-story building’s facade, helping to insulate as well as offering a range of habitats that enhances the locality’s biodiversity.

I design buildings as ‘living systems’ and as ‘constructed ecosystems,’” Mr. Yeang says. “It’s not just about green walls. I bring back the native fauna that are not hazardous to humans and match these with the native flora selected to attract the fauna, now set as ‘biodiversity targets’ in a matrix. With this, I create the local landscape conditions to enable flora and fauna to survive over the four seasons of the year.”

The idea is spreading. A primary school and gymnasium in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, now under construction, was designed by architects Chartier-Dalix to be covered with a living shell and house local flora and fauna.

BLG 18 classrooms school and sporthall

Argentine architect Emilio Ambasz built a multi-use government office building in Fukuoka, Japan, with 14 one-story terraces that make the one-million-square-foot building look like a green hill rising from the park in front of it. Mr. Ambasz also renovated the headquarters of ENI in Rome with curtains of vegetation.

Basel, Switzerland, has required since 2002 that flat roofs be covered with vegetation, in part to save energy and in part to protect biodiversity. While the peregrine falcon, one of the first species on the U.S. endangered species list in 1974, reboundedin part through urban nesting programs to nearly 100,000 birds world-wide today, less-glamorous endangered species, from spiders to beetles, also benefit fromthe increase in habitat. In the U.K., the Bat Conservation Trust has published a landscape and urban design guide for bats and biodiversity.

A green exterior is nice, but what goes inside—the design and materials—are important, too. “The building and products sector are seeing that environmental issues are moving up the agenda,” says Martin Charter, professor of innovation and sustainability at the Centre for Sustainable Design at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, U.K. “Construction, buildings and building products are associated with high carbon dioxide emissions on a macro level and big end-of-life waste issues. The sector does have a big-life cycle impact, not just in extractive phase but at other stages of life cycle as well.”

Concrete produces as much as a tenth of industry-generated greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers studying the molecular structure of cement found that changing the recipe to 1.5 parts calcium for each part of silica wouldcut cement’s carbon emissions up to 60% while making the resulting material stronger.

Simple design considerations can make a building greener. The shape and the orientation can affect heating and cooling needs. Natural ventilation with mixed mode systems can alleviate the need for air conditioning even in tropical climates. Mr. Yeang designed the Menara Mesiniaga office building in Selangor, Malaysia, so even elevator lobbies, restrooms and stairwells in the 15-story building get natural ventilation and natural daylight.

Green design includes water management in rainfall harvesting and storing water, so potable water doesn’t have to be used to irrigate the vegetation. Design must close the water cycle within the site, combining water management, water reuse and recycling with sustainable drainage and constructed wetlands for blackwater treatment, he says.

In nature, the only energy is from the sun. If we want to imitate nature, we should use only the sun,” Mr. Yeang says. “In nature, everything is recycled. Waste from one organism becomes the food for another. In human society, we have a throughput system where we use things and throw them away, but in fact, there is no ‘away’ in the biosphere—it just goes somewhere and pollutes the environment. If we imitate nature, we should have a closed system. As a design strategy, we need to study the attributes and properties of ecosystems as the basis for designing our built environment. When this becomes mainstream, there will be a stasis of nature with our built environment.”

*For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

Storage is the key to next generation energy

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar*


The linchpin in making sustainable energy mainstream is power storage.

Renewable energy sources can’t overtake carbon-based energy without good storage of energy for when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Electric vehicles won’t outsell gas vehicles until they have more autonomy and faster charging.

Batteries have become longer-lived, lighter, cheaper and safer, thanks largely to the boom in mobile electronics; new materials, nanotechnology and new understanding of electrochemistry are leading to more advances.

Batteries are an old technology, but people are really focusing on research and development now. I have no doubt that 10 years from now we will see some amazing batteries,” says Charles Barnhart, assistant professor of Environmental Sciences at Western Washington University.

Batteries remain a black box on a molecular scale. “There’s a tremendous effort internationally to understand in detail the processes during charging and discharging lithium-ion batteries,” says Olaf Wollersheim, project manager of the Competence E program at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), in Eggenstein-Leopoldshafen, Germany. “It’s really complex, because they are multimaterial systems.”

Lithium-ion, or li-ion, batteries have been adopted by the car industry because they are 98% to 99% efficient. However, they can burn “if they’re not treated with respect,” he says, adding that the auto industry has learned to use them safely.

Dr. Wollersheim recently inaugurated Germany’s largest solar power storage park at KIT, consisting of 102 smaller systems of 10 kilowatts each, with different orientations, module brands and inverter brands. The project aims to find the best combination for storage.

Energy plantOne avenue for improvement is software to control batteries. “A battery by itself is a stupid thing,” Dr. Wollersheim says. “It stores energy and gives it back. To do that optimally, you need an energy manager—a masterpiece of software. It has to take into account all the specifics of the electrochemistry of the cells. KIT has software with 10,000 lines of code just to control the storage system.”

Such controls can increase the battery’s lifetime and the return on investment. If the battery charges while the sun is still rising, it might be full and waiting for discharge at midday. That isn’t good for making the battery last. A control system might “charge the battery a little bit slower, in order to have shorter times of full charge,” he says.

Research also is looking at how stored energy interacts with the grid. Dr. Barnhart compared five kinds of batteries—lead-acid, li-ion, sodium-sulfur, vanadium-redox and zinc-bromine—to calculate how much energy it takes to store the electricity, including building the devices, and the amount of carbon they emit during manufacture and operation. He paired the different battery types with wind-generated and photovoltaic electricity, and matched them up against the power grid average to find the optimum combination.

Lead-acid batteries have a low cradle-to-grave energy cost, because lead is abundant and the technology is well established. However, they last only 200 to 400 charging/discharging cycles.

By contrast, Dr. Barnhart said, li-ion batteries have higher cradle-to-grave costs but last 3,000 to 5,000 cycles, making them the winner among batteries when paired with both solar and wind sources.

The cheapest, cleanest way to store power, Dr. Barnhart notes, isn’t a battery but pumped hydro—pumping water up a hill while the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, and then releasing the water to turn turbines and generate electricity when the renewable source isn’t working. A similar technology pumps compressed air into an underground cavern to spin a turbine later.hydro storage

Pumped hydro is 99% of the storage on the grid today” in the U.S., says Dr. Barnhart. “These are simple technologies that last a long time and aren’t subject to complex chemistries.”

However, geography limits the easy options for pumped hydro. In Germany, “there is strong public opposition to converting nice valleys into storage systems,” Dr. Wollersheim says.

The demand for electricity rose to 1,626 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) in 2012 from 400 Mtoe in 1973, according to the International Energy Agency. The IEA forecasts electricity demand to grow by more than two-thirds between 2011 and 2035, and for renewables to account for 31% of power generation by 2035, up from 20% in 2011.

A big shift toward electric vehicles would add a large load to the electricity network, says Suleiman Sharkh, professor of  power electronics machines and drives at the University of Southampton in the U.K. “We and others say this would also be an opportunity to reinforce the grid, because those batteries on the electric vehicles are available when the vehicles aren’t being driven around. If we connect them to the grid, they could store energy from wind power or solar panels.”

Such a system would require the system to know in advance the driving needs for the vehicle, to make sure it’s charged enough, as well as information about electricity demand on the grid, he says. Costs would have to be calculated—perhaps car owners could charge for free or be paid for allowing their batteries to be used for grid storage, and for the extra wear and tear on the batteries.

With so much territory uncharted, the first applications of vehicles for power storage are likely to be municipal fleets, especially in China, where pollution concerns are accelerating a shift toward electric-powered transport, Dr. Sharkh says.

“It’s something we think is going to be a good option in the future,” he says.

*For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

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