Hyperloop’s futuristic concept overshadows its substantial environmental benefits, argues Juan Vicén, co-founder of hyperloop company Zeleros.
Hyperloop technology consists of a levitating vehicle travelling through a low-pressure tube at speeds of over 1000 km/hour. Known as the ‘fifth means of transport,’ this is a world where we can travel at the speed of a plane, with the comfort of a train. But being involved in hyperloop isn’t just about being part of a cool technology race that deals with a futuristic means of transport. The technology is designed to cope with the complex, systemic existing and future unsolved problems that all of us face.
The expansion of the transportation sector can be directly linked to the rise in congestion, pollution and oil dependence. By 2050 approximately 68 per cent of the global population will live in cities, according to the United Nations, a socio-demographic shift that forces us to rethink the way passengers and freight are transported. Global air traffic has doubled every 15 years since 1977, making the growth of air traffic unsustainable and rapidly escalating the industry’s contribution to carbon emissions.
As society aims to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and find ways to “build back better”, hyperloop technology can contribute to the reduction of direct emissions, especially carbon dioxide, while delivering a similar travel experience to air travel along certain routes.
A hyperloop fleet in revenue service is energised through a clean energy storage system, which means the main source of potential emissions would be the construction of the guideway and related infrastructure. However, considering the targets set by both the steel and concrete industries for 2050, emissions due to the construction and operation phase will still be almost negligible in comparison to that of the current commercial airplane operators.
Hyperloop can reduce direct emissions while delivering an airline-like experience
This is even taking into account a reasonable forecast of improvements in the aviation industry in the decades to come; potential measures like better fuel efficiency, usage of low emission synthetic fuels, and partial electrification of the aircrafts that would typically operate on routes where Zeleros’ hyperloop could be one of the alternatives.
Once aircrafts have been upgraded, engine improvements and the introduction of synthetic fuels will likely result in an average reduction in aviation emissions of between 10 and 35 per cent. However, over a period of 30 to 35 years the sustained increase of air travel demand may lead to a stagnation in the reduction of CO2 emissions, or even an increase.
Hyperloop on the other hand will cut these down radically by its own clean-borne design, while delivering a similar transportation option. All in all, we foresee that between 2030 and 2060 a baseline of 1,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide could be saved, with an opportunity for up 2,000 million tonnes, depending on the specific deployment of the hyperloop network and the rate at which the aviation industry achieves its ACARE commitments.
The fact that a future roll-out of hyperloop is so aligned with The European Commission’s European Green Deal and a number of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals - including climate action, sustainable cities and communities, and affordable and clean energy - also makes it more attractive to investors and stakeholders. Traditional capital-intensive projects in sectors such as oil and gas, or traditional transport, could start struggling to find financial support as sustainability has a heavier weight on their long-term risk assumptions.
In June the European Parliament set a resolution to include hyperloop in the post-Covid-19 recovery plans, highlighting the potential of "hyperloop connections between the major cities of Europe as an affordable, clean and fast alternative to short-haul air traffic". The world’s first joint technical committee for the standardisation of hyperloop components was also recently created in Europe and hyperloop companies are receiving an increasing amount of investment as excitement about the technology builds.
Hyperloop is just one example of how innovation can tangibly contribute to systems change and the move towards a prosperous, inclusive, climate-resilient society. We give institutional and private investors the possibility to invest in profitable projects while also participating in the systemic shift of the economic model to net-zero. There are many others like us, and Accelerator programmes, like the one we participated in run by EIT Climate-KIC, are fertile ground for ideas and investors alike.
Hyperloop might sound like something straight from the future, but the technology, industry, ideas and investment are firmly grounded in the now. My hope is that we seize this post-Covid moment in time to realise the potential of the ideas and imagination out there, and start making the promise of systemic change a reality.
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