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Imagine A Hyperloop That Uses Underwater Tunnels To Replace Cargo Ships

You might be excited to take Elon Musk's crazy transportation tech, but the first use is going to be for freight—and it might not be on land.

Imagine A Hyperloop That Uses Underwater Tunnels To Replace Cargo Ships

Before you ever board a hyperloop for a half-hour trip from San Francisco to L.A., it's possible that the ultra-fast transit system might help deliver the things you buy. Hyperloop One, the Los Angeles-based startup that ran a demo near Las Vegas earlier this year, is working on cargo transportation on land—and it also wants to transform shipping ports.

The underwater system would let cargo ships drop freight into massive hyperloop tunnels submerged 10 miles offshore. "You can see it as almost analogous to what oil companies do now: They bring their tankers in, connect with risers offshore, collect or distribute their oil without ever coming into port, and then leave," says Blake Cole, a marine engineer at Hyperloop One.

[Photo: Daniel Terdiman for Fast Company]

For shipping companies, it could make delivery more efficient. Cargo ships sometimes wait in line for days to reach port; the new system could stretch out far enough to provide as many docking points as needed. Because it would be so much faster, it would help save money, and ultimately make goods cheaper.

It could also dramatically reduce pollution. While ships wait in line, they typically spew smog into nearby neighborhoods. The Ports of L.A. and Long Beach are the largest complex in the country; kids in Long Beach also have the highest rates of asthma. Keeping ships farther offshore would help.

"You don't need to get these really pretty disgusting cargo ships actually entering ports anymore," says Cole. "It's bad that they pollute in general, but if they have to, it's probably better that they be kept away from where people live."

[Photo: Daniel Terdiman for Fast Company]

Moving ports offshore would also free up beautiful coastline areas for parks or development rather than acres of cranes.

Of course, the hyperloop still needs work before it's ready for use on land, let alone underwater. The type of tunnels that would likely be used at ports—submerged, rather than buried in the sea floor—have never actually been created before. "There are pretty substantial engineering challenges that have to be overcome before they can successfully be built," says Cole.

Underwater, most of the hyperloop technology could be directly transferred, but there would be new challenges—such as issues with leaking, which all underwater tunnels face, and maintaining a vacuum.

If it the design challenges can be solved, it could eventually also be used for moving people. The company recently proposed a 300-mile underwater tunnel that would connect Stockholm and Helsinki. But it's most likely to start with underwater cargo first.

The system could also be used over longer distances; an underwater cargo hyperloop from Los Angeles to San Francisco could potentially deliver freight without ships at all, helping reduce overall pollution.

"Personally, what gets me the most excited are the possible implications for environmental remediation," says Cole. "In my mind, if we can take even a handful of cargo ships off the ocean, that's a huge benefit in terms of reducing sulfur dioxide in the air, and greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Basically, if we can say we've got a way to transport goods from A to B that's not only fast and efficient but clean—that's really exciting."

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