After an interesting presentation by Prof. Dr.-Ing. Agnes Jocher of the TU Munich about the Hyperloop this interesting question just came to my mind: “Will more transportation methods actually lead to a decrease in CO2 emissions?”
The population of earth is still increasing exponentially, more and more people will have access to (public) transportation and third world countries keep developing (That is great of course!), which will lead to an increase in global energy usage.
How can we manage to satisfy everybody, while also limiting the global CO2 consumption? This question let alone is already challenging enough to answer, but the question I asked myself is: “Will more technology, more ways of transportation really decrease the CO2 emissions globally?”
A short collection of thoughts on a giant collection of problems and questions of our time.
What technologies could help us limit the global CO2 emissions?
Of course I can not portray every promising technology on my mini website, therefore I just want to focus on the two most interesting ones (in my opinion), which have been discussed in public over the last decades. However, if you think there are other different, promising technologies I did not mention here, feel free to comment via Disqus or let me know via my Github. :)
The Hyperloop is an ultra-high-speed ground transportation system for passengers which was brought up into the discussion by Elon Musk. He published a white paper on the first experiments which were performed under the name “Hyperloop Alpha”. (Click here for the paper).
The system should connect large metropolitan areas by sending pressurized vehicles, so called pods, at very high speeds, through sealed and partially evacuated tubes. Thanks to the contactless levitation as well as to the low aerodynamic drag (because of the vacuum), many people believe that this system could be the transportation method of the future. Enthusiasts believe that the travel time of medium-range distances can be considerably reduced compared to current connections. Moreover, with fully-electric operations the system aims at being climate-neutral. This is short video will give you nice and quick impression of the hyperloop:
For more detailed information you can checkout the website of TUM Hyperloop here.
MAGLEV (derived from magnetic levitation)
The MAGLEV technology is pretty similar to the one of the Hyperloop, it is basically just not build in a tube (oversimplified of course). Therefore you will have the problem of air resistance. It works like this: The rails of the MAGLEV contain two sets of cross connected metal coils wound into a “figure 8” pattern to form electromagnets. On the train itself are superconducting electromagnets. When the train stopped, it rests on rubber wheels. To begin motion, the train moves forward slowly on these wheels, allowing the magnets beneath the train to interact with those of the road. Once the train reaches 150 kilometers per hour, the magnetic force is strong enough to lift the train 100 milimeters off the ground, eliminating friction to allow for increasingly high speeds. The same magnetic forces that lift the train also move it forward and keep it centered within the guideway. This is the same technology used by Tesla’s Hyperloop, just without the tube.
It is kind of tragic to tell the story of the MAGLEV as a European/German. European companies were one of the best in the world at the beginning, the first commercial MAGLEV rail line operated at Birmingham airport (UK), but activity ground to a halt after 23 people lost their lives in 2006 when a MAGLEV train crashed into a maintenance vehicle in Germany. So many investors stopped funding research and development of the MAGLEV systems in Europe.
However, in China, a number of projects have taken off, including the S1 route from Shichang to Pingguoyuan as well as the Transrapid test line from 龙阳路(Longyang Road) to 浦东机场(Pudong Airport). In an article published by the Guardian one of the engineers said: “Maglev has no wear and tear, no contact noise and very low vibration. I think maglev is going to take off.” In Japan, a new MAGLEV line called the Chuo Shinkansen is being built, which managed to reach 603 km per hour during testing.
Gave Europe up to fast on this technology? - In my opinion that’s a clear “Yes!” - The technology is already working and with some minor adjustments this could already be a quick alternative to normal trains. Most importantly it is way more established than the Hyperloop. I think of the MAGLEV rather as the first step towards an actual Hyperloop, than as competitor against it. If we can not even make MAGLEV work, how should we be able to use almost the same technology in an evacuated tube? (Which is not even build yet!) Or more optimistic: “If we could make MAGLEV work than Hyperloop is not that big of a challenge anymore.”
I have been a passenger of the MAGLEV in Shanghai myself and it was awesome! Have a look yourself:
Picture inside of the station at 龙阳路(Longyang Road)
Picture of the speed screen inside the MAGLEV
Picture of the weird guy writing this blog lol
In addition to the pictures I took myself, here a nice Youtube video, which documents the whole ride:
As you might have guessed I am a big fan of the MAGLEV and think it is more realistic than the Hyperloop. However, both options are great new ways to transport all of us.
New technologies are cool, but what about the CO2 emissions?
So now to the actual part of this post.
We have innovational ideas, we will establish new technologies and we will have access to more computational power than ever before, but will that really lead to less CO2 emmisions. Will those technologies really be CO2 neutral as advertised ?
If you take some time to consider that we will have to build complete new tube system made out of Ultra High Performance Concrete (UHPC), we will probably need thousands of tons of aluminum or other materials to build the pods inside the tubes and not to mention the energy to power the whole system, you will ask yourself: “Is this still CO2 neutral?”. Of course not, but that is not even the point.
We will need to invest a lot of money and CO2 to build new sustainable ways of transport eventually. That is clear, but what will happen to the old established ones? Airplanes, trains, ships and so on? If they still are cheaper than these new technologies than most of the common public will still use them. Especially the third world countries, which can not afford these new fancy technologies.
So if that means that we will have more ways of transport, but still mostly use the old ones which are not CO2 neutral, then we won literally nothing. We probably will even emit more CO2, so we might even lose.
This sounds pretty depressing, but it really is not. It is just important to realize this and think this one step ahead. “What will happen to the old ways of transportation, if they are still more affordable?”
In my opinion the goal must be to use economic finesse in order to globally decrease the prices of new technologies, but on the other hand make the old ways of transport less profitable. The rest will handle the market itself. (ideally of course)
Furthermore we need these new systems quickly. So the best way to implement a new system quickly is to use an already developed and established technology like the MAGLEV. Of course it might not be as fast as the Hyperloop, but it is still faster than normal trains.
Japan is already building the new Chuo Shinkansen line, based on MAGLEV technology. The “trains” will speed up to 600 km/h, which is already a huge achievement. Even though this technology is already established and we know it works consistently, the project of the new line is planned to be finished in the year 2045 (!).
So how long would it take to build a functional Hyperloop system, which can be used by the common public? In my opinion twice as long. Moreover, we do not even know if the Hyperloop will be more profitable than e.g. the MAGLEV.
To sum everything up I think we should really be realistic, what will help us handle the climate crisis.
Of course it is fun and important to think about new fancy technologies like the Hyperloop, which are super futuristic. It is absolutely correct to keep funding those technologies as well, because the Hyperloop could be the technology, maybe not of the next 30 years, but possibly of the 2060’s and 2070’s.
However, it is important to know that we already have incredible technologies which are CO2 neutral and could help us change the future. Just because Elon Musk does not tweet about them, does not meant that they are useless or less relevant. Technologies like the MAGLEV are probably the fastest way to create CO2 neutral transportation systems, which can be used before 2050.
Of course MAGLEV or other similar technologies do not have these “Sci-Fi” characteristics, but they could make the crucial difference in the fight against climate change.