When Elon Musk shared the details about his Hyperloop transportation system idea in August, few bothered to read the 58-page document that laid out how it might work. But a team at an engineering simulation software company did, and their new models show that Hyperloop could happen.
Sandeep Sovani and his colleagues from the Canonsburg, Pennsylvania-based engineering simulation software company Ansys jumped on plans soon after Musk shared a blog post and detailed PDF for a subsonic, partially evacuated cylindrical tube transportation system to take passengers between LA to San Francisco in 35 minutes. Sovani, a transportation expert at the company, told me he has been thinking about tube transit for more than a decade.
Partly out of intellectual and scientific curiosity, and partly because they wanted to be ready from a business perspective, Sovani’s team plugged Musk’s plans into a computer model. These kinds of virtual models simulate real physics, Sovani explained to me. They help engineers designing new products who want to know what happens, for example, when a smartphone gets dropped on a hard floor. It saves them from building flawed prototypes.
First the team combined the various artist renderings to create a basic Hyperloop capsule and tube design. Then they simulated airflow conditions inside the tube and made several discoveries. One was that both the diameter of the tube and the passenger capsule need adjusting. They’re too close together. Another was that the capsule shape wasn’t aerodynamic enough — it should be more rocket-like at the front and conical at the tail end instead of dipping down.
The Ansys group’s first Hyperloop design revealed that, as is, the air flow would become sonic or even supersonic. Not good. Pushing that enormous air column ahead would be energy-consuming and make travel practically infeasible, Sovani said. Ideally the air wouldn’t be flowing as fast or faster than the speed of sound. But this doesn’t mean the Hyperloop won’t work. These are merely challenges to overcome, not dead ends.
“I’m pretty convinced that the concept is feasible,” Sovani said. Next his team will create a new virtual prototype that includes the modifications they’re suggesting. While he doesn’t know if Musk has seen these models, they will be made available to the public soon so others can view and build upon them. Ansys has done spacecraft modeling for SpaceX in the past so I wouldn’t be surprised if they do end up on Musk’s radar.
Sovani thinks that tube transportation needs visionaries like Musk to move forward, similar to the rail and air travel revolutions of the past. When a Hyperloop does open, he wants to ride it. This design is only the beginning. “You might be able to go from LA to New York, rather than from LA to San Francisco, in one hour,” he said. “Then people can stay anywhere and work anywhere in the continent.”
Images: A virtual software simulation based on the Hyperloop plans shows the contours of wall shear stress in pascal from 0.1 in blue to 1.0 in red (top) and airflow reaching supersonic levels in red (bottom). Credit: Ansys