Ever since Elon Musk started talking about his vision for a commercially viable Hyperloop back in 2012, enterprising companies and university teams have been working hard to make his dream a reality. If they succeed, we will one day rely on high speed Hyperloop systems as a mass transit alternative to trains, planes, and automobiles. At the heart of it all will be carbon fiber.
Virtually every Hyperloop car built to date has been made primarily with carbon fiber. Although none have been suitable for passengers, they have offered a proving ground for the physics and engineering principles that will eventually make the Hyperloop a reality. None of it would be possible without carbon fiber or a similar composite. Why? Keep reading to find out.
Hyperloop 101: The Basics
A Hyperloop is a passenger or freight transportation system that combines maglev technology with an evacuated tube design to reduce friction. Also known as vactrains, Hyperloop vehicles can theoretically travel at speeds as high as 5,000 mph. Provided the trains and their loops are designed correctly, they can do so very safely. The risk of accidents is comparably low thanks to the Hyperloop’s closed loop design.
Traveling that fast does present some problems though. First, it must be understood that a Hyperloop tube is only partially evacuated. It would be impossible to fully evacuate the tube and still run trains through it. At any rate, air in the tube creates friction and puts stress on a Hyperloop train as it moves through the system.
The amount of stress a Hyperloop car might experience traveling at such high speeds would be at least equal to the stress put on commercial aircraft during flight. Those stresses might be even greater due to the speed at which Hyperloop trains theoretically travel. This means that the cars have to be built using materials capable of withstanding extreme forces.
Strength Without the Weight
When you account for all the stresses exerted on a Hyperloop car, you’re forced to conclude that it should be designed more like an airplane fuselage than a standard rail car. That is the big reason nearly all Hyperloop cars have been made from carbon fiber thus far.
Airplane fuselage design is all about low air resistance. It is about reducing drag by reducing friction. If you want a Hyperloop train capable of traveling at 5,000 mph, you can’t afford even a little bit of drag. Yet that still does not explain why cars are made of carbon fiber instead of aluminum.
In the simplest possible terms, it boils down to weight. Yes, it is entirely possible to design a streamlined car with an aluminum skin. But between the skin and its reinforcements, the car would be too heavy to accomplish the desired speeds. So just like aerospace manufacturers turn the carbon fiber to keep weight down, Hyperloop designers would rather build their vehicles with carbon fiber than aluminum.
Carbon fiber is stronger than steel and aluminum despite being lighter, according to Rock West Composites out of Salt Lake City, Utah. They say carbon fiber is the ideal choice for building Hyperloop car bodies. Once designers are ready to build cars suitable for passengers, it is likely they will employ carbon fiber in seat design as well.
And now you know why Hyperloop cars are made from carbon fiber. If you want to get in on the action and you have millions of dollars lying around, you can compete with everyone else trying to make Elon Musk’s Hyperloop dream a reality. There is still plenty of room in the design table.