Hyperloop: could rail’s big new idea be used to ship freight underwater?

We all know how freight is shipped from one port to another, but Hyperloop One – which to date has been associated with revolutionising rail travel by using pods that are pushed along by a series of electromagnets – wants to change it.


It seems that not a week goes by without more news regarding the latest iteration of Hyperloop; test tracks, speeds, the configuration of the tunnels. Its stated aim is to forever change how passengers travel, and grand plans are being discussed.

However, of the recent smattering of press releases, one in particular caught the eye; let’s call it the underwater Hyperloop.

Developed by Hyperloop One – just one of the companies involved in the Hyperloop endeavour – this aquatic version sees the opportunity to radically change how goods arrive at ports and terminals, dispensing with the well-trodden idea of port-to-port container shipping.

“Conceptually, I think one of the things that's interesting about the future is there's a lot of underutilised space underground,” said Hyperloop One board member Peter Diamandis in August. “I think one of the areas the Hyperloop can become an expert in is tunnelling technology in the future.”

The idea: goods, underwater

How would it work? The company believes that ships could unload their freight not directly at a port, but rather into tunnels that are submerged offshore. That freight would then be transported via tubes to the port, made possible by removing almost all air from a tube and pushing it with a series of electromagnets. The low air pressure means a lack of friction and very high speeds.

Blake Cole, one of Hyperloop One’s marine engineers, has drawn parallels with the oil and gas industry; “you can see it as almost analogous to what oil companies do now”, he told Co.Exist earlier this year.

"Freight could be transported via tubes to a port."

“They bring their tankers in,” he added, “connect with risers offshore, collect or distribute their oil without ever coming into port, and then leave.”

On that basis, Hyperloop One’s idea does not seem as radical as it does at first glance, but it would still represent a fundamental shift in the movement of goods and port operations. The conceptual images that have been released show a ship approaching small, individual ‘docking’ stations, which then connect to the tube below the surface, which in turn is linked to a port that could be stationed about ten miles off a coastline.

The plan, albeit one that is in its infancy, would make the most of Hyperloop’s speeds – Hyperloop One clocked 187kph during a test in May – to move cargo from the docking station to ports, meaning that in theory, the process of unloading from a container ship could be significantly sped up.

Diversification of the idea

For Hyperloop One, it represents a diversification of the original premise behind Hyperloop, while still keeping the inherent parts that make it different from any other transportation mode known to man.

For the shipping industry, it could also play a part in the move to a greener, cleaner future, or, added Cole, at least keep some of the pollution away from cities that surround ports.

“You don't need to get these really pretty disgusting cargo ships actually entering ports anymore," he said. “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.”

Diamandis, talking to Business Insider, agreed with this premise, saying: “Long Beach, near where I live, is a beautiful California coastline that is basically covered with ports or cargo containers and ships.

“Imagine if you could regain all of that coastline for parks and homes and beaches by taking the port and putting the port 10 miles off shore.”

Agreement with DP World

This all sounds great on paper, but what are the chances of it actually happening? Considering the amount of work required to pull it off, it will not happen any time soon. However, the Hyperloop concept has already jumped a number of hurdles in its short life, creating an atmosphere of confidence and an ‘anything is possible’ mindset.

That confidence has been reinforced by the signing of an agreement between Hyperloop One and DP World, which operates 77 marine and inland terminals across six continents, to study the feasibility, possible route and cost of building an underwater system at Jebel Ali Port in Dubai.

"I believe in the Hyperloop. I believe it’s the future."

Shervin Pishevar, cofounder and executive chairman of Hyperloop One, said of the agreement: “We firmly believe that this study is the first step towards the construction of the Hyperloop in Dubai, which could reshape one of the world's most modern cities and bring even more infrastructure innovation to the United Arab Emirates.”

That Hyperloop One has been able to bring on board a major player is a sure sign that their idea has legs. Radical? Yes. Impossible? Probably not.

Next steps for Hyperloop

The study will of course reveal much more, however as Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, chairman and chief executive of DP World, said at a press conference in August, “we have to be creative to sustain our business, this is a game changer for the terminal handling operation as it is today”. Interestingly, he added: “If it works in Dubai, we will do it in Africa, India and across Asia.”

In the US, Hyperloop One is also partnering with engineering firm AECOM to understand how its technology could be used to offload containers from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and Diamandis confirmed to Business Insider that other talks are in the pipeline.

So, expect to hear more on this, as well as on the possibility of using underwater tunnels to transport passengers. The final word to Bin Sulayem: “I believe in the Hyperloop. I believe it’s the future.”