By Anders Lorenzen
We have started making good headway on the long road of decarbonising our economies, though there is obviously still a long way to go. The last ten years of groundbreaking breakthroughs in tech and energy mean we are starting to develop a pathway for how this can happen. There is still, however, one area where we lack any credible solutions, and that is in aviation; while the global CO2 footprint of aviation still is fairly low, that it is the sector in which CO2 emissions are rising faster than any others.
Several solutions to green aviation have been proposed over the years, ranging from sustainable biofuel made from algae to electrified aeroplanes, however, despite large sums of money and time being invested in this from the likes of Virgin’s Richard Branson and other philanthropists, we are not much closer to a solution. Meanwhile, the existing airline industry tells us they’re making aeroplanes more efficient, ignoring the fact that as our middle classes grow there is hardly any country on earth which is not keen to expand its airport capacity.
Step onto the stage Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind Tesla, Solar City, PayPal and Space X. No, he hasn’t developed a multi-lateral green aviation solution, however, he has engineered a transport technology that at least could reduce reliance on air travel – the Hyperloop. Hyperloop works by pods being transported in tubes built overground and the developers promise the travel to be as quick or quicker as an aeroplane and as cheap as a bus ticket. The tube would have the air removed to create a vacuum and pods would be accelerated with magnets. Because of this, only a fraction of the energy would be required as that of an aeroplane, and it will be all electric.
When Musk first unveiled the Hyperloop idea, the initial excitement around it dropped off after he explained that he was not, in fact, going to bring it into life as he simply had no time. Meanwhile, he did make concept ‘open source’ and offered it to anyone who wanted it. Critics still dismissed the idea as unrealistic and something that would never happen.
However, excitingly, a couple of years down the line the Hyperloop concept has gained real traction and could now become a physical reality sooner than we know it. One of the first companies to adopt and build the technology is called Hyperloop One, they have constructed a prototype called DevLoop in the Nevada Desert near Las Vegas and will this year be testing a 3-kilometre prototype with the aim of reaching speeds around 1126 km/h.
Pending successful testing, Hyperloop One has already agreed to deals with governments in United Arab of Emirates (UAE), Sweden, Finland, Russia and of course the US (the home of the company) to construct routes in those countries. And if all goes well, the company hopes it will not only compete with the aviation industry but also shipping as the prototype has the potential to transport cargo as well as people.
There are many ways to reduce the reliance on flying and drop emissions. Making flying more efficient and developing sustainable jet fuel as well as pricing flying according to its carbon output (aviation is currently exempt from EU’s emission trading scheme and UN climate talks) are absolutely part of the solution. However, while we wait for this to happen we need other solutions and I’m absolutely convinced that Hyperloop One could be one of them. I recently had the privilege of listening to the two founders as they presented the idea at the November Web Summit in Lisbon and they presented a compelling vision which nobody struggled to believe in. They also emphasised that any idea Elon Musk comes up with you would be foolish to ignore, and with the financial mastermind of Uber just having just joined the team, the sky is the limit.