Hyperloop - Mines Alumnus on the Cutting-Edge of Transportation

“Flying 700 miles per hour through a tube using magnets and sunlight isn’t a dream.”

The baritone narrator in a video describing the proposed Great Lakes Hyperloop makes the case that a twenty-eight minute commute over the 343 miles that separate Cleveland from Chicago is a near-term reality.

Chuck Michael-2For Chuck Michael (CE 77), hyperloop is the future of transportation. “This is a game-changing technology with a huge public benefit,” he says. “You could work in downtown Chicago and live in Cleveland and get to work faster than sitting on the freeway from the Chicago suburbs.”

The hyperloop concept involves a magnetically levitated capsule that is propelled through a vacuum tunnel at velocities approaching the speed of sound using renewable wind and solar energy. Michael is the head of US feasibility studies and regulatory advisor for the company Hyperloop Transportation Technologies based in Los Angeles. “We use a proprietary passive magnetic levitation system, developed at Lawrence Livermore National Lab,” Michael says. A small forward motion on the permanent magnetic array creates a field that aids both propulsion and levitation.

“We can levitate twenty tons at walking speed,” Michael says. A "reimagined" linear motor, powered by renewable energy, provides electromagnetic propulsion with virtually no emissions. The capsules need very little energy to move in the low-pressure tube where aerodynamic drag is negligible, and friction is eliminated. “You can push it and it will coast for a few miles,” he says.

Much of the hyperloop can be built underground. This saves energy and eliminates the need for dealing with surface easements, road crossings, and changes in topography that can hinder high-speed transportation development.

The company touts 800 collaborators including the world’s leading corporations and universities and more than fifty multidisciplinary teams working across six continents. “There are a lot of people out there who like to tackle difficult technical challenges,” says Michael. “We source top experts in their fields who work in organizations around the world.” 

The first commercial hyperloop system is set to go on-line in October 2020 in Abu Dhabi. It covers a three-mile span and will be a gateway to Expo 2020. The system may someday connect the cities of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, and Dubai in a giant triangle offering travel times in minutes rather than hours. Hyperloop projects are also being planned in Asian and European countries—many projects, like one in Germany, have a dual focus on movement of both passengers and products from major seaports to markets inland.

On this side of the pond, Hyperloop TT is leading a public-private partnership in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois to evaluate a hyperloop connection between Cleveland and Chicago. Michael says the feasibility study is nearly complete. “There are no existing rules or regulations for this kind of system yet in the United States.” The company is working with various federal agencies to develop the regulatory framework for this and future hyperloop projects. “This project is an incredible challenge but fun,” he says.

Michael’s lengthy engineering career includes large infrastructure projects from high-speed rail transportation systems to deep underground science lab planning. He came across the idea of the hyperloop while grappling with the significant regulatory and engineering hurdles on a proposed bullet train connection in Minnesota between Rochester and Minneapolis. “That project led us to a series of questions that needed to be answered by a different technology,” Michael says. In 2013, he read Elon Musk’s whitepaper on the hyperloop and “had some ideas for improvements,” but he saw merit in the overall concept. He soon began meeting with a group of like-minded individuals and began working on hyperloop feasibility studies in the central valley of California.

“We changed most of the technology in Musk’s paper while streamlining the permitting process with the federal government,” says Michael. “We can build a system that will travel at almost the speed of sound, at a fraction of the cost, that uses solar and wind energy alone.”

Hyperloop TT is now testing its passenger capsule, which is designed to aerospace standards, at a full-scale test track at an old airfield in Toulouse, France. Michael says the skills he picked up as a student in the 1970s at SD Mines are still valuable today. “Professor Bill Coyle taught me to always take the time to do it right, and never stop trying to improve your work after that,” he says.

More than forty years later, it’s a lesson Michael hasn’t forgotten. “I do have a desire to someday retire, except that worthwhile projects like this are too much fun,” he jokes.

If Michael ever does retire, he may do so with the deep satisfaction that he played an important role in developing groundbreaking technology that transformed human transportation.


Last edited 2/3/2020 9:18:48 PM

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