Daryl Oster, CEO for Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies.
Elon Musk is a brilliant, big-thinking, subtly accented, physicist turned financing pioneer turned engineer, self-made billionaire who has led the design of revolutionary cars and rockets and he needs no introduction. Musk unveiled his idea for a next-generation transportation system on August 12th, and it got the attention of about every news organization between Earth and Mars, where Musk hopes to aim his rockets one day.
Musk’s SpaceX and Tesla Motors, which he launched after cashing out of first billion-dollar idea, PayPal. Then Musk let slip the term “Hyperloop,” and he and the dozen SpaceX and Tesla Motors engineers amped up the effort. They modeled, mapped, quantified and qualified their way to the 57-page preliminary design study that garnered galactic coverage on that August Monday.
But that may have been it. Even before the preliminary design hit the .pdf — which he released open-source, no strings attached –- Musk had made clear that the Hyperloop remained “extremely speculative.” He was a bit busy, at the moment, to take on a $6 billion project, which would represent more investment than Tesla and SpaceX combined, he added.
“Obviously I have to focus on core Tesla business and SpaceX business, and that’s more than enough,” Musk told reporters on an Aug. 7 Tesla Motors conference call. “I did commit to publishing a design and provide quite a detailed design, [but] I don’t have any plan to execute because I must remain focused on SpaceX and Tesla.” He did hedge in a conference call after the Hyperloop report’s release, saying, “I think it might help if I built a demonstration article. I think I probably will do that, actually.”
One imagines John F. Kennedy: “I think we probably choose to go to the moon, actually.”
To be fair, for all his means and influence, Musk does lack a massive taxpayer-funded bureaucracy to perform his bidding. So he realized the vision of ultrahigh-speed land travel could well depend on someone marshaling a tiny fraction of Musk’s net worth and name recognition, but with the brains, time, energy and passion to ride herd on a moonshot-class mission.
Someone, maybe, like Daryl Oster.
Oster, 51, runs a consortium called ET3, for Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies, and his vision has the rare distinction of being even bolder than one emerging from the mind of Elon Musk. Like Hyperloop, ET3 involves firing people and cargo through suffocated straws at extreme speeds. But whereas Musk sees Hyperloop as a solution for cities separated by no more than about 900 miles (for longer routes, he thinks the economics favor a supersonic plane), Oster promotes a planetary network capable of speeding a passenger from New York to Beijing in two hours.
“It’s global space travel on Earth,” Oster said, which happens to be ET3’s trademarked catchphrase.
Oster, trim with short hair, said this at a table in the community room immediately below his and wife Brenda’s condominium off County Rd. 32 in Mead, Colo. A neck wallet from which he produced a business card draped over his Hawaiian shirt. An ET3 capsule could have covered the 35 miles from Denver in less than 10 minutes, but it still required a 45-minute drive through the corn fields and pumpjacks of rural Weld County. ET3, space travel on Earth, has been Oster’s life’s work.
Oster describes the speculative in the present tense.
He grew up on the same farm as his dad and his granddad and his granddad’s dad, near La Salle, Colo., 20 miles northeast of the condominium. They grew row crops –- grain and corn, “had a couple of horses, occasionally had some cattle, but not usually,” Oster explained. Like all farmers, they worked with their hands, fixing, welding and building as things broke.
But his father’s day job as a high school chemistry and physics teacher laid an unusual theoretical foundation for his son.
“If I would ask two plus two, he would give me an algebra lesson,” Oster laughed. “I mean, he always took a lot of time to really explain math and science and how things like engines worked.”
In the late 1960s, up in Greeley, Colo. at Winograd’s Steel & Supply where his dad bought scrap metal, a man weighed steel, scribbled a quick note and dropped it in a little glass capsule. A Victorian pneumatic tube system zipped the note across the road to the office and brought back an invoice.
“I wondered what it would have been like to have one of those big enough to ride in, or to be small enough to ride in that thing,” Oster said.
But he attributes his real interest in evacuated tube transport to a math error in the early 1980s. While studying engineering at Walla Walla University in Washington, he loaded different shapes into a small wind tunnel and calculated the drag. A high-drag shape, according to his numbers, showed less resistance than something more streamlined. He found the mistake: His air-density number was off by a factor of 10. For the hell of it, he dropped the density figure to zero.
The light bulb went off: This was tantamount to space travel. And then he wondered, “What if we make tunnels and take the air out?” “What if we make tunnels and take the air out?”
In a Hollywood version of this story, this is where we would typically introduce a brilliant invention, recount widespread adoption and detail the soaring fortunes of its progenitor. That’s not what happened with Daryl Oster.
He met a girl, she got pregnant, they married too young. Oster dropped out of school to support them a couple of quarters short of his degree. The marriage ended quickly. He came back home to Colorado. Big companies wouldn’t hire him without the diploma, so he worked for smaller firms — here an autonomous military land vehicle, there a mower for golf course greens. Then he decided to try the stock market, working nights at an Air Force Exchange Service Burger King as he built his book. In the late 1980s, there was a spontaneous move to Lincoln, Nebr. to work on filament-wound structures — mix shafts for the food industry and rocket-motor casings.
He met and married Brenda. They moved to Florida. At first telemarketers, Oster got a job designing boats for Pro-Line. On the side, they flipped houses; then they got into commercial property. The real estate market was starting to boom.
All the while, Oster turned over the idea of ET3 in a growing number of engineering notebooks. He considered different tube diameters, propulsion systems, routes, markets. He worked 40 hours on boats and 60 hours on ET3, with Brenda taking the lead on real estate.
“Pretty soon ET3 became a major portion of my time, and I guess it just turned into obsession,” Oster said.
“He was getting up in the morning at, like, 7 and going to bed at, like, 4,” Brenda said. She brought food to his desk when he was too immersed to realize his hunger. He’s still doing the 7 a.m. to 4 a.m. days, she added.
They drove up to Washington, D.C. to research patents. In 1999, Oster quit his job at Pro-Line to focus on ET3. It was all self-funded; their real estate and occasional freelance engineering contracts sustained them. Then the real-estate market crashed about the same time Oster’s dad experienced a big health scare.
“I just decided I wanted to ride motorcycles with my dad for a few years while he still could,” Oster said. “We could do ET3 from anywhere and so we auctioned off all our property in one day.”
They paid off $150,000 in credit card debt and had enough to buy the Mead condo in 2010.
Oster had, by that point, filed a few patents of his own and fashioned ET3 into an intellectual property-based consortium, with one-time fees ranging from $100 for individuals to $5,000 for big companies. Licensees can incorporate Oster’s patents and plans, plus those of other licensees — about 260 of them in 20 countries, according to Oster –- into their own future ET3-based systems, at the cost of a 6% royalty on revenue whenever their capsules start flying through tubes.
Stephan Venczel, an investment banker in Calgary, has been an ET3 licensee for about a year. Among other uses, the system could transport oil more cheaply than through pipelines, he said. He has been impressed with Oster.
“Basically, he’s a smart guy, he’s astute, he’s ethical,” Venczel said. “I don’t consider that his slow start or the challenge he’s had raising money are any reflection on the technology or him personally.”
Evacuated tube transport isn’t a new idea. By the time Oster had his wind-tunnel epiphany up in Walla Walla, a Rand Corporation study on Very High Speed Transport had been gathering dust for more than a decade. Author Robert M. Salter proposed “tubecraft” that would be lifted and propelled by magnetic levitation –- so, no rolling resistance –- that could hit 14,000 mph taking passengers from New York to Los Angeles in 21 minutes. The rub was that the system would rely on cross-country tunnels.
“The technical problems associated with VHST development are manifold and difficult, but no scientific breakthroughs are required,” Salter wrote. The price tag for the main trunk alone would be $90 billion, Salter estimated, which is $500 billion in today’s dollars. Tunnels aren’t cheap. Swissmetro and Terraspan, among others, have proposed variations on Salter’s theme.
But with ET3, Oster appears to have, with the possible exception of Musk, developed the most detailed plans for tackling those “manifold and difficult” problems associated with evacuated tube technology.
There are three keys to ET3: a narrow tube diameter, minimal capsule weight and high-temperature maglev technology. Narrower tubes (ET3 specifies a diameter of five feet) mean less vacuum pumping and lighter pylons and bridges for support (like Musk, Oster proposes an elevated system, which among other issues obviates the need for a 100-foot-wide right of way bisecting properties from here to Beijing). The smaller diameter also means less drilling when the system must plunge through mountains (inevitable at very high speeds that don’t allow for sharp turns).
Oster’s capsules are small, too: 4’3” high and 16’2” long, not far off the dimensions of a midsize car. Besides coolant to maintain superconductivity of the yttrium barium copper oxide ceramics on board, life-support and sanity-preserving systems (such as big video screens to distract its passengers from the fact that they’re hurtling through the choking darkness), it’s more or less six seats –- or space for the equivalent of three cargo pallets, depending. The maximum weight including cargo: 1,212 pounds. This lack of heft translates into lesser stresses and lower costs throughout the system — one-tenth that of high speed rail or a quarter of the cost of a freeway, Oster says.
The third differentiator is the use of high-temperature superconducting maglev, which ET3 licensee Yaoping Zhang pioneered at China’s Southwest Jiaotong University. The technology uses liquid nitrogen rather than liquid helium as a coolant, which lets the system run somewhere between 63 and 77 Kelvin (minus-321 to minus-346 Fahrenheit, the zone in which nitrogen neither boils nor freezes solid). Traditional maglev runs on helium, a liquid at a chillier 4 Kelvin and much more expensive. The capsules carry the superconductor, allowing for a simple guideway. Linear motors launch the capsules to jet-aircraft speeds and beyond; occasional linear motors en route maintain gaps between cars and subtly adjust speed, and linear motors at the destination do the braking, winning back much of the acceleration energy through an analog of a hybrid car’s regenerative braking system.
Most of the trip, you’re floating in the man-made great beyond, with a four-inch gap between the capsule’s exterior and the nanoengineered concrete walls of the tube.
Of course, none of this exists, any more than Musk’s Hyperloop does. Hyperloop, while similar in the broad sense, is a different animal. The cars are bigger, roughly six feet high by 4.5-feet wide, and long enough for 28 passengers. Musk also elevates his tubes, which have an internal diameter of 7’4”, on pillars (note that Musk proposes a second, larger system, one that could carry three cars). The tubes would host the vacuum-pressure equivalent of an altitude of 150,000 feet. This is rarefied air, but still 1,000 times more dense than ET3’s proposed vacuum, and therefore easier to maintain leakage and entry and exit of capsules through airlocks. But even that scant amount of air is enough to increase demands on the capsules, which include a compressor powered by a 436-hoursepower onboard motor and juiced with 3,400 pounds of batteries.
The compressor’s job is to blow onrushing air behind the capsule –- otherwise, what amounts to an airbag would slow the vehicle from its 760-mph tear. Some of that air is channeled to 28 air bearings, each a sort of ski 15 square feet in size. Rather than using maglev technology, Hyperloop cars float on a cushion of air. As with ET3, Hyperloop’s minimizing air resistance and recapture of acceleration energy makes it hugely efficient. Oster says ET3 is 50 times more efficient than the best electric cars or trains; a 57-megawatt solar array atop the Hyperloop route would produce more than twice the average power needed to run the system, Musk estimates.
Of course, asking a transportation expert about ET3 vs. Hyperloop is like asking an NFL scout to rank Quidditch prospects. Experts in traditional transportation tend to be flummoxed by these systems, with their strange technologies and disregard for the traditional boundaries of road, rail and air, transit and cargo.
With respect to ET3, Texas A&M Transportation Institute spokesman Rick Davenport said in an email, “This is the first I’ve seen of this. This is beyond something we could comment on … I don’t even know where to suggest you might try!”
The challenges remain manifold and difficult. While providing all but resistance-free travel, vacuums kill. As pressure drops, so does the boiling point, which means it takes pasta longer to cook in Denver than it does in Del Mar. At something called the Armstrong limit, water boils at body temperature, meaning the water in saliva, tears or on the lungs’ alveoli starts to bubble away. The Armstrong limit is equivalent to the pressure at about 62,000 feet altitude. A 1973 NASA document summarizing the biological effects of vacuums on mammals gives you 10 seconds of consciousness and about two minutes to live should you stumble over the Armstrong limit without a pressure suit.
Both Oster and Musk say safety will be paramount. They have answers for sudden depressurization or tube breaks, generally involving controlled ventilation to use outside air to slow capsules and then isolating the problem with air gates so as not to lose vacuum completely.
Jean Ratner, a therapist who directs the Center for Travel Anxiety in Maryland, says that simulating windows with high-def screens would “help a lot,” but claustrophobia will be a real problem for some passengers. Even in the closed tube of an airplane, they can get up and go to the bathroom, at least –- neither Hyperloop nor ET3 appear to have included built-in bathrooms.
“No bathroom — that would be a disaster,” Ratner said, adding that even the notion of bathrooms assuages passengers who need a sense of possible escape. Without them, she added, “I think there’s going to be quite a diminished demand for the service.”
James Powell co-invented maglev technology while at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the 1960s. He backs the idea of an Interstate Maglev Project, and said the devil will ultimately be in the details of evacuated tube transport. Those details range from minimizing g-forces around curves (Hyperloop anticipates 0.5gs of lateral force; the limit for conventional trains is 0.1g, and a maglev study found passengers get sick at 0.2gs — not good, especially without a bathroom) to keeping terrorists and saboteurs from soft targets that, when breached, create onrushing air tantamount to an onrushing train.
In the case of Hyperloop, the proposed gap between the capsule’s air bearings and the steel wall is as little as 0.5 millimeters. That’s the breadth of a mechanical pencil lead. It represents a huge engineering challenge, Powell said, particularly considering near perfection must carry across maybe 25,000 pillars and as many tube segments, through the expansion and contraction of temperature swings and seismic jostling.
Don’t forget the byzantine permitting and approval processes and myriad leasing agreements involved in dealing with hundreds or thousands of jurisdictions and property owners –- a complexity that following established corridors (Musk wants to track along Interstate 5 in California) can only partially mitigate.
But Musk is a famed optimist, and Oster a not-so-famed one. Both believe evacuated-tube transport is a battle worth fighting. They told each other as much in a meeting three weeks before the Hyperloop announcement.
At SpaceX’s Hawthorne, Calif. headquarters, the man from Mead walked among rockets in assembly, guys in Air Jordans working on cargo pods and 3D printers cranking out spacecraft parts. Then he went toe-to-toe with Musk in a discussion of evacuated-tube transport. Oster’s command was typically encyclopedic. They came to understand that their ideas, both unique, amounted to a sort of convergent evolution. Both had recognized that incumbents had left open a high-speed niche that a clever assemblage of technologies might finally be able to fill.
Oster told Musk he was working on securing a site for a three-mile, $20 million ET3 test bed and hoped to break ground before the end of 2013.
Musk wished him luck and gave them a bit of advice: “Just build the three miles. And you’d better be careful — don’t hurt anyone.”
Musk and Oster then traded SpaceX and ET3 ball caps. Musk went back to work on his spacecraft and electric cars; Oster is forging ahead on ET3.
In his Rand report of 41 years ago, Salter wrote, “We no longer can afford to continue to pollute our skies with heat, chemicals and noise, nor to carve up our wilderness areas and arable land for new surface routes. Nor can we continue our extravagant waste of limited fossil fuels.” Today, the U.S. population is 50% larger; U.S. airline passenger miles have leapt by a factor of 20; we drive, collectively, 250% more miles in more than twice as many vehicles; and our atmosphere is laden with 21% more carbon dioxide.
These sorts of ambitious transportation projects may be just what the country and the environment needs, said Powell, the maglev pioneer.
“We had the Apollo project and people got really excited about that. Nuclear energy. The interstate highway system. The Internet. But right now we don’t have any of that excitement going on,” he said. “I think that’s what this society needs at this point –- feeling that they’re moving ahead in a big way.”
The world needs someone like Daryl Oster, a maverick who dares to dream about the future and who’s just unconventional enough to make it happen.