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Future Transportation (Part 2) – Hyperloop and Hydrogen Planes

When Greta Thunberg traversed the Atlantic on a sailboat, she forced the world to take notice of the growing sustainability problem in our transportation systems.

In 2018, the commercial aviation industry reportedly accounted for 918 million tons or about 2.4% of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use. While 2.4% may not seem like much, the International Council On Clean Transportation reported that CO2 emissions from commercial aviation increased by 32% between 2013 and 2018. If this trajectory continues, some say aviation could account for over 25% of the worldwide carbon budget by 2050. [1]

While Greta’s voyage is impressive, few of us have the liberty of time and space to sail across the ocean…

But that does not reduce the seriousness of the problem or the implications of our carbon footprints on the environment.

Powerplants and cars may be the main culprits for air pollution, yet more than one-third of the emission comes from heavy transport such as trucks and airplanes.

Aviation’s environmental footprint is significant, with the World Wildlife Fund describing it as “one of the fastest-growing sources of the greenhouse gas emissions driving global climate change.” The WWF also says air travel is “the most carbon-intensive activity an individual can make.” [2]

Heavy road vehicles, chiefly 18-wheel class 8 trucks, average just 6 miles per U.S. gallon and emit nearly 4% of global CO2 — over half of the carbon produced by heavy road transport. [3]

It is becoming increasingly clear that we need a sustainable and smart mobility strategy to maintain our quality of life and global competitiveness. 

Traffic congestion is already costing us billions of dollars yearly, and it will only worsen. We must reduce traffic congestion and emissions while making our transportation system more efficient and accessible.

 What is Hyperloop Technology?

Hyperloop technology is a new way of transporting people and cargo. It is a type of transportation that is faster and more efficient than traditional modes of transportation. 

It uses a system of tubes filled with a special gas that helps reduce friction and make the transportation process faster.

The idea of using vacuum tubes is not novel…

The Crystal Palace pneumatic railway used air pressure to push a wagon uphill (and a vacuum to drag it back down) in Victorian south London in 1864. Similar systems using pneumatic tubes to send mail and packages between buildings have been in use since the late nineteenth century. They can still be seen in supermarkets and banks to move money around today. [4]

The idea was reintroduced with amendments and improvements by Elon Musk in his paper ‘Hyperloop Alpha’ in August 2013. The paper set out to explain the mechanism and cost of the modern system.

Hyperloop involves a vacuum tube where a pod slides along a magnetized single track. This creates a very low-resistance environment which allows the pod to move at high speeds using minimal electricity – making it both low-cost to build and operate. 

For passengers, this could mean significantly cheaper tickets than traditional modes of transportation.

While today’s bullet trains travel at 200 miles per hour and commercial airplanes cruise at 500-600 mph, the hyperloop has projected speeds of 700-800 mph. And since a hyperloop can avoid the takeoff and landing that an airplane needs to get to cruising altitude, it can shave additional time off the journey and create a more efficient trip. [5]

The current designs for the hyperloop are for elevated tracks. They look somewhat similar to the monorails at Disney World with one key difference — they are enclosed tubes on top of the pylons.

How Much Will a Hyperloop Cost? [6]

Musk envisioned an LA to San Francisco journey time of half an hour with pod departures every 30 seconds, each carrying 28 passengers.

Spreading the capital cost over 20 years and adding in operational costs, Musk came up with the figure of $20 plus operating costs for a one-way ticket on the passenger Hyperloop.

Most of the cost of the system lies in building the tube network: the overall cost of the tube, pillars, vacuum pumps, and stations was calculated at just over $4bn for the passenger version of Hyperloop ($7bn for a slightly larger version that could also take freight). 

The cost of the capsules was put at around $1.35m a piece; with 40 needed for the service, the cost of these is around $54m (or $70m for a mix of passenger and cargo capsules). 

That’s less than 9% of the cost of the proposed passenger-only high-speed rail system.

As companies work to get the idea from paper to reality, we may still have some time before an actual hyperloop system comes into place…

However, Virgin Hyperloop One is vaguer on its plans: “Difficult to say as it will depend greatly on the route, but the goal is to make it affordable for everyone,” it said. In contrast, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) expects “a profitable system with low ticket price projections.” [7]

The Challenges…

  • The success of Hyperloop is highly dependent upon destinations, local economics, and geography.
  • Capacity is another critical problem to consider. Can Hyperloop do a better job of moving a large number of people than other mass transit options?
  • Moreover, companies must work out the engineering hurdles, like building the tubes strong enough to deal with the stresses of carrying the high-speed pods and finding energy- and cost-efficient ways to keep them operating at low pressure. 

 

Hydrogen Planes — The Future of Air Transport

According to Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury, aviation would “potentially face significant hurdles if we don’t manage to decarbonize at the right pace.” [8]

Hydrogen has been a potential clean energy source for decades. Energy sector observers and public policy experts have praised its benefits, to the point where some people joke that it will always be the energy of the future. 

Hydrogen packs a lot of energy per unit of mass – three times more than conventional jet fuel and more than a hundred times that of lithium-ion batteries

However, it has yet to live up to its potential. 

The advantages of hydrogen as an aviation fuel have been well-known for decades. Thanks to an energy density by mass three times higher than traditional jet fuel, liquid hydrogen has been the signature fuel for the American space program since the late 1950s. 

As a more scalable alternative to battery-powered aviation concepts, which present significant challenges, especially for larger aircraft applications due to energy density and safety considerations, hydrogen is now emerging as a significant component of commercial flights’ future technology mix. [9]

The Challenges…

Hydrogen fuel cells are expensive to produce because the technology is not yet mature. The electrolysis process, which is used to separate hydrogen from water, is still not very efficient. 

Electrolysis requires electricity to produce hydrogen. Depending on the method used, this process results in an efficiency of around 70-80%. That means you lose 20-30% of the energy when you convert electricity to hydrogen.

Efficiency is further down to 25% if you use hydrogen for direct combustion. The result is a loss of up to 75% energy when you convert hydrogen to power a jet engine. The 75% becomes “dead weight.” [10]

Since the process is very costly, continued research and development are necessary to make it a viable option.

As things stand, liquid hydrogen is more than four times as expensive as conventional jet fuel. Over the coming decades, the price is expected to drop as infrastructure is scaled up and more efficient. But according to Britain’s Royal Society and the management consulting group McKinsey, it will likely remain at least twice as expensive as fossil fuels for the next few decades. [11]

Some of the other challenges are…

The energy density of liquid hydrogen is only about a quarter of that of jet fuel. This means that it needs a storage tank four times the size for the same amount of energy. Consequently, aircraft may carry fewer passengers to make space for the storage tanks or become significantly larger. 

The first option would mean a reduction in ticket revenue, other things being equal. The second option requires a bigger airframe, which is subject to more drag. Further, entirely new infrastructure would need to be put in place to transport and store hydrogen at airports. [12]

Adopting hydrogen as fuel at scale will require robust fueling infrastructure networks. 

Are there any solutions to these problems??

The race to make hydrogen a sustainable and economical fuel is on. Governments, research firms, scientists, and companies are working side by side to overcome the challenges and make hydrogen fuel mainstream.

One such example is a Norwegian global energy company, Equinor. In collaboration with its partners, the company has several hydrogen projects.

The company is working to decarbonize industrial hubs such as the Humber region in the UK and the Appalachian region of the United States.

The US Department of Energy accepted the grant to install a containerized Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) electrolyzer at Exelon Generation’s Nine Mile Point nuclear power plant in New York State as part of a hydrogen production demonstration project. 

According to the Exelon Generation, “The project will generate an economical supply of hydrogen, a natural by-product of nuclear energy, to be safely captured, stored, and potentially taken to market as a 100% carbon-free source of power for other purposes, including industrial applications such as transportation.”

Following these efforts, companies such as ZeroAvia, AirBus, Boeing, and Cummins are accelerating their pace in bringing in hydrogen-powered aircraft.

However, it is important to have a clear framework in place before we switch to hydrogen as a green fuel.

From a policy perspective, greater incentives for low-carbon aviation fuels, support for developing and deploying enabling technologies and infrastructure, and harmonizing safety standards and regulations will be key in moving the needle on decarbonizing aviation. 

Yet, due to long aircraft development and certification lead times, these challenges demand urgent answers from industry leaders and policymakers, who will need to keep up to date on the opportunities and barriers facing hydrogen-powered aviation, including public perception concerns. [13]

 

Conclusion

Hydrogen fuel cells and hyperloops are two promising technologies that could offer a cleaner and more efficient means of powering our vehicles in the future. However, there are still some hurdles to overcome before they can be widely adopted.

We’ll just have to wait and see which of these technologies comes out on top. The materials and components needed to build a hydrogen fuel cell are expensive, and there is also the cost of building the necessary infrastructure, such as fueling stations.

In the aviation sector, drop-in synthetic liquid fuels provide an attractive decarbonization option at the expense of higher energy consumption and potentially higher costs.

Direct hydrogen use also shows promise, but the sector will need to borrow technologies developed for the automotive and space industries and apply them to commercial aircraft operations while achieving similar or better safety targets. [14]


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References:

[1]. Valery Miftakhov, Forbes Magazine, 10th January 2020, Is Electric Flight Aviation’s Next Era of Innovation?

[2]. Anmar Frangoul, CNBC News, 17th February 2022, Airbus CEO says hydrogen plane is ‘the ultimate solution but cautions a lot of work lies ahead

[3]. Amory Lovins, MIT Sloan Management Review, 4th August 2021, Decarbonizing Our Toughest Sectors — Profitably

[4]. Steve Ranger, ZDNET, 16th August 2019, What is Hyperloop? Everything you need to know about the race for super-fast travel

[5]. Jason Hiner, ZDNET, 1st February 2018, why hyperloop is poised to transform commutes, commerce, and communities

[6]. Steve Ranger, ZDNET, 16th August 2019, what is Hyperloop? Everything you need to know about the race for super-fast travel

[7]. Jason Hiner, ZDNET, 1st February 2018, why hyperloop is poised to transform commutes, commerce, and communities

[8]. Anmar Frangoul, CNBC News, 17th February 2022, Airbus CEO says hydrogen plane is ‘the ultimate solution but cautions a lot of work lies ahead.’

[9]. Nicola De Blasio, Harvard Kennedy School, August 2021, The Role of Clean Hydrogen for a Sustainable Mobility

[10]. Jay Hilotin, Gulf News, 30th March 2022, Hydrogen-powered aircraft? What we know so far

[11 & 12]. Caspar Henderson, BBC News, 8th April 2021, The hydrogen revolution in the skies

[13 & 14]. Nicola De Blasio, Harvard Kennedy School, August 2021, The Role of Clean Hydrogen for a Sustainable Mobility

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