Virgin Hyperloop

Hyperloop: think big, win big

6 January 2021

Leybold’s Tom Kammermeier talks to Joe McEntee about the German manufacturer’s long-range bet on hyperloop vacuum-based transportation systems.

Tom Kammermeier

Tom Kammermeier is an industrial physicist in a hurry. Hardly surprising given that the commercial roadmap he’s following points to a multibillion-dollar opportunity for vacuum equipment makers – an opportunity that, in turn, promises to transform ground-based mass-transportation of people and goods over the coming decades using energy-efficient hyperloop technologies.

Put simply: if technology hype translates into commercial reality, today’s proof-of-principle hyperloop test facilities will, ultimately, scale up to enable the transit of passenger and freight capsules from A to B through steel tubes (roughly 4 m in diameter) maintained at partial vacuum (typically less than 1 mbar). The end-game: journeys of several hundred kilometres at speeds in excess of 1000 km/h – Los Angeles to San Francisco, Mumbai to Chennai, Montreal to Toronto are just some of the high-demand routes on the drawing board – with maglev technologies teed up to provide the required propulsion, acceleration and deceleration along the way.

The end-game for hyperloop is journeys of several hundred kilometres at speeds in excess of 1000 km/h

While the journey to commercial hyperloop deployment is only just beginning, a thriving and diverse innovation ecosystem is already hard at work, with heavily financed technology start-ups and dozens of academic groups and established manufacturers coalescing into a nascent hyperloop supply chain. As Leybold’s global application development manager (industrial vacuum), Kammermeier is front-and-centre in the German manufacturer’s efforts to establish itself as the “go-to” vacuum technology partner for the hyperloop development community. Here he talks to CERN Courier about the trade-offs, challenges and near-term benefits of playing the long game on technology strategy.

How does your application development team support technical and commercial outcomes within Leybold?

I coordinate a team of 20 application specialists worldwide who handle what we call third-level product support – essentially any unique or non-standard technical requests that get referred to us by our regional sales and field engineering colleagues. In each case, we’ll work closely with Leybold’s product engineering and R&D teams to come up with solutions, ensuring that any new learning and insights are shared across the organisation through a structured programme of knowledge dissemination – online webinars, tutorial videos and the like. Our remit also includes the investigation and development of new vacuum applications. This work is informed by emerging customer needs in markets where Leybold already has an established presence – for example, surface coatings, semiconductors, solar technology and food and drink – as well as evaluation of longer-range commercial applications like hyperloop transportation.

What’s the back-story to Leybold’s engagement with the hyperloop community?

The hyperloop opportunity was initially championed at Leybold back in 2015 by my colleague Carl Brockmeyer, who at the time was head of new business development (and is now president of Leybold’s scientific vacuum division). While Carl articulated the long-term commercial vision, my team focused on initial simulations and high-level requirements-gathering for the enabling vacuum technologies. At the outset, we worked closely with pioneering development companies such as Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) in the US and Virgin Hyperloop (US), while subsequent collaborations include TransPod (Canada) and the EuroTube Foundation (Switzerland).

I’m a physicist by training and, from the off, it was evident to me that there are no insurmountable technical barriers to hyperloop transportation. As such, it seems clear that the large-scale deployment of hyperloop systems will ultimately be driven by policy-makers and by commercial factors such as capital/operational costs versus return on investment.

Hyperloop represents a long-term commercial opportunity for Leybold. Are there any near-term upsides?

The calculus is simple: in the absence of volume orders, we invest time and resources in early-stage R&D collaborations with leading hyperloop companies in return for the publicity, benefits of association and the acquisition of technical and commercial domain knowledge. The work is bursty and comes in waves – essentially an R&D programme and reciprocal learning exercise at this stage. More widely, we’re seeing some payback in our established market sectors, where the hyperloop activity has opened doors with new customers who might not know Leybold so well. What we see is that hyperloop is a great topic for our sales teams to talk about – it’s very relatable.

What do these hyperloop collaborations typically involve?

Our approach is project-led, bringing together ad hoc teams of engineering, simulation and application specialists to address a range of customer requirements. Most of our collaborations to date have kicked off with simulation studies – a relatively cheap way to test the water and build a fundamental understanding of hyperloop vacuum systems and their core technologies.

Virgin Hyperloop’s DevLoop test facility

It wasn’t long, however, before our systems group began supplying one-off hardware orders, including a large-scale vacuum pumping unit for Virgin Hyperloop’s DevLoop test facility in the Nevada desert. While this is a custom installation, it’s
based on existing commercial pumping units that we sell into steel degassing applications, though with several modifications to the programmable controller.

There’s been lots of hype about hyperloop over the last five years. How do you see the market trajectory right now?

My take is that hyperloop R&D and commercialisation activities are gathering pace, as evidenced by the first successful demonstration of human travel in a hyperloop pod at Virgin Hyperloop’s DevLoop test site back in October. This represents a significant breakthrough after more than 400 previously unoccupied test-runs at DevLoop. Elsewhere, we recently sold another big pumping system into HTT for its work-in-progress test-track near Toulouse, France. We’re frequently in contact with them regarding simulation or engineering considerations, with safety-critical aspects very much to the fore as HTT also plans to transport human passengers in the near future. 

What sort of technical challenges is Leybold being asked to address by hyperloop developers?

Pumping down a hyperloop vacuum tube over hundreds of kilometres is a non-trivial engineering challenge. From a vacuum perspective, you need to think carefully about the spacing of your pumping stations along the tube; optimisation of each pumping system; what happens in case of tube failures or accidents; and how the distributed pumping network can provide back-up pumping capacity and compensation (see “Hyperloop: rewriting the rules of large-scale vacuum”).

Hyperloop: rewriting the rules of large-scale vacuum

Custom pumping systems

“Pumping down a hyperloop vacuum tube over hundreds of kilometres is a non-trivial engineering challenge,” notes Leybold’s Tom Kammermeier in our accompanying interview. Here he outlines some of the key design and engineering considerations for hyperloop vacuum systems.

Location, location, location

The aspect ratio (diameter/length) of a hyperloop system is enormous – 1/1000,000 is easily within reach – and imposes inescapable design constraints in terms of vacuum pumping capability. A single-site pumping station, while minimising capital outlay, would result in some odd pressure distributions and gradients along the hyperloop track. During pump-down, for example, the operator might register the target base pressure at one end of the pipe while the other end is still at atmospheric pressure. What’s needed instead is an intelligent distribution of pumping capacity along the track – crucial for compensation of any leaks and pump failures, and doubly so in terms of reducing capital/operational expenditure (as every additional pumping site means more outlay in terms of enclosures, power supply, water supply and associated infrastructure).

Smart strategies for leak management

A vacuum system can be defined along a number of coordinates, not least in terms of its pump-down requirements and target operating pressure (where the total pumping speed equals the inleak flow rate). The higher the permissible operating pressure, the lower the pumping speed, and the greater the aggregate energy savings over time. A large-scale hyperloop system will therefore require a smart pumping network to optimise the distribution of pumping speed dynamically versus local inleak flow conditions – a capability that, in turn, will yield significant (and recurring) operational savings. It’s also worth noting that an understanding of the pumping-speed distribution (essentially a granular map of pressure along the tube) will enable efficient leak detection without recourse to a conventional and time-consuming leak search.

Gearing up, pumping down

Peak energy consumption for any hyperloop vacuum system will occur during end-to-end pump-down along the track. With this in mind, Leybold is working to optimise its multistage Roots pumping systems for the very long pump-downs (of the order of 12–24 hours) that will be required in large-scale hyperloop tubes. Roots pumps are an excellent option for high-volume flows at low pressures – i.e. the usual operating regime of hyperloop systems – but their efficient use for an extended pump-down from atmospheric pressure is problematic. Issues can include overheating due to gas compression; overload of the motor; or exceeding temperature limits due to low heat dissipation at low gas pressures. The answer is to employ variable-speed drives, which basically “know” the thermodynamics of each individual pump and enable optimised use. In this way, the programmable logic controller of the pumping system is able to orchestrate the individual pumps to yield the highest possible pumping speed during a pump-down – equating to some millions of m3/h for a 1000 km track.

What lessons have you learned from Leybold’s engagement with the hyperloop community?

A lot of the learning here has been around the simulation of large-scale distributed vacuum systems – because no-one has ever built a vacuum system on the scale necessary to support commercial hyperloop transportation. We’ve had plenty of discussions to date regarding our models and whether they’re still valid over distances of several hundred kilometres, while our technology roadmap focuses on what an optimised pumping system will look like for future “live” hyperloop deployments. To date, because the market is still not mature enough, we’ve created smart hyperloop pumping systems by adapting our existing product lines – specifically, units that we’ve developed for steel-industry applications.

Is cost a big driver of your hyperloop R&D priorities?

Always. Cost-of-ownership calculations feature prominently in discussions with all our hyperloop customers. We’ve given a lot of input, for example, on required pumping speed versus leak flow rate versus operating pressure. Fundamental studies like this help our partners to evaluate whether it’s worth focusing more of their investments on a leak-tight pipe or on the vacuum pumping systems. Another priority for developers is energy consumption, so our system-level simulations provide vital insights for the accurate calculation of pump-down time and vacuum performance versus energy budget. In this context, it’s worth noting that Leybold’s DRYVAC Energy Saver – which reduces the energy consumption of our dry compressing screw pumps and systems by as much as 50% – is emerging as a potential game-changer for the large-scale pumping systems that will underpin hyperloop installations.

Are vacuum equipment makers ready if hyperloop’s technology push translates into market pull?

If hyperloop transportation really takes off, it will represent a massive growth market for the vacuum industry. Even a mid-size hyperloop project will require significant focus and scale-up from suppliers like Leybold. The biggest challenge will be developing, then bringing to market, a new generation of application-specific pumping systems – at the required scale and the right price-points.

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