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Reinventing the wheel – and logistics – with the Delft Hyperloop pod

Tim Houter is the team captain of the Delft Hyperloop team from the Delft Technical University in The Netherlands. He and his team have spent the last year working on a working prototype of a Hyperloop pod, which is set to change transport and logistics as we know it.

Imagine this: sending a package from Amsterdam to Paris – a distance of more than 500 kilometers – and having it arrive in 30 minutes. That’s the future we envision on the Delft Hyperloop team.

The great thing about the Hyperloop project is it allows us to dream big: about a future where a trip from Amsterdam to Paris is as convenient as a train but faster than a plane. We’ve also joined DHL in imagining what Hyperloop could mean for the transport of goods. DHL, after all, has been dreaming of the future of logistics for some time.

By supporting projects and technology that contribute to the logistics of tomorrow – measures that are sustainable, innovative, fast, and efficient – DHL was the perfect partner to not only transport our Hyperloop pod prototype from Amsterdam to Los Angeles, where we’ll put it through tests at Elon Musk’s SpaceX facility, but also for conversations about how Hyperloop could change logistics – something that was on our mind from the get go.

The Hyperloop concept involves sending a pod through tubes with very little air resistance at very high speeds. It’s a revolutionary concept, and we believe the logistics industry will be among the first benefactors of Hyperloop.

Overcoming air resistance

Any normal mode of transportation – from a bike to an airplane – is subject to air resistance. In fact, with trains and cars, 90 percent of the energy used in moving the vehicle goes toward overcoming air resistance. At cruising altitude, planes have less air resistance to overcome, but it still takes lots of energy to get them to that height and maintain speed.

With Hyperloop, this all changes. By removing nearly all the air in the tube where the Hyperloop runs, we not only greatly reduce the energy needed to get the pod up to speed, but we increase the maximum speed to 1,200 kilometers per hour. That’s faster than a plane, but still on the ground.

The implications for logistics is clear: lower energy costs, fewer carbon emissions (20 times lower than a plane), and a quicker way to transport goods from point A to point B. The fully functioning Hyperloop system could see pods running as frequently as every 30 seconds, meaning there could be a near-constant flow of cargo.

Challenges relating to the last-mile delivery would still exist, but DHL has solutions on the horizon for those as well: automated ‘Packstation’ delivery lockers could be installed at every Hyperloop station, or autonomous delivery vehicles could complete the journey.

What goes fast, must slow down

As soon as we came up with a way to achieve the high speeds possible with the Hyperloop, our next question was how to slow it back down. While this does address the practical matter of stopping the pod once it arrives at its destination, braking relates first and foremost to safety. Like any company in the logistics business, safety for the public and employees is a top priority for DHL.

The fail-sake braking mechanism of the Hyperloop works using magnets. The magnets attached to the pod that serve as the brakes hover near an aluminum rail that runs underneath the pod when it travels. This rail is made of aluminum. When the Hyperloop is in motion, bringing the magnets closer to the aluminum rail creates magnetic friction, which quickly slows the vehicle down.

It’s a fail-safe system that does not rely on physical friction like the brakes found on a car or a bike.

This provides an added benefit when taken in the logistics context: safety can be ensured with an extremely reliably braking system that does not have the same costs or maintenance as traditional brakes.

 

Thinking beyond the wheel

The wheel has served us well for centuries, and it is indeed a part of nearly all modern forms of transportation. But we have reached the limits of one of humankind’s greatest pieces of technology. The speeds at which the Hyperloop can travel are simply too much for even the most sophisticated wheels to handle, meaning we need to replace them with something else. Again, we turn to magnets for the solution.

Here’s how it works: electric engines quickly get the Hyperloop pod up to an initial speed of 30 kilometers per hour – a speed well within the range of the wheels attached the pod to handle this part of the journey.

At that speed, magnets configured under the pod and pointing downward toward the aluminum rails generate a repulsive magnetic force that causes the pod to lift several centimeters off the track. Free of the wheels, we can continue accelerating the Hyperloop pod up to a top speed of 1,200 kmh.

Magnets also have the benefit of lower maintenance and costs compared to wheels, and require zero energy to operate. Think of the positive impact on the environment if every wheel in the logistics industry was replaced with a magnet?

Those are the kind of questions we asked when we started on the Hyperloop project just one year ago, and the questions DHL asks as it searches for the safest, cleanest, most-efficient, and fastest logistics innovations – like Hyperloop – to take us into the future.

The Delft Hyperloop team was one of 30 selected to construct Hyperloop pod prototypes and test them on a test track at SpaceX in California. The final tests are scheduled for  January 27-29, 2017. Learn more at DHL Deliverers.

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