Reports that UK passengers could soon be zooming around the country at speeds of 700mph in a vacuum tube have, not surprisingly, unleashed a torrent of speculation and interest.
Transport bosses in the north of England are reportedly exploring the possibility of building their own version of the hyperloop, a leading-edge transportation system devised by Elon Musk. The system, if implemented, would reduce cross-country journeys to a matter of minutes and propel commuters at close to the speed of sound - which certainly sounds a lot more exciting than chugging along in a Virgin pendolino.
But there's an obvious corrollary to all this: how would the designers ensure that the system is safe? Personally, this writer would seek some assurance before being propelled by a hypersonic capsule along what amounts to a giant air-bed. The technology is said to be collision-free, but then these claims do have a tendency to come back and bite their authors on the posterior, as the poor folk who built the Titanic will doubtless testify.
Remarkably, the answer to the safety question may lie in a new technology called vibranium - a name which will be familiar to anyone who reads Captain America comics.
Vibranium is the material used to make Captain America's indestructible shield. But now one of the companies bidding to create the hyperloop - a startup called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies - claims to have manufactured its own version of vibranium. And, unlike Captain America's shield, theirs is entirely real.
In May HTT announced it had developed vibranium, in conjunction with a Slovakian company called c2i. The company said the material would consist of sensor-embedded carbon fibre, and would be used to coat the outside of the hyperloop's tubes.
HTT claimed the new material was eight times stronger than aluminium and 10 times stronger than steel alternatives, despite being several times lighter than both. It apparently transmits critical information regarding the capsule such as temperature, integrity and stability in real-time. And each capsule would be built with two layers of coating, so, even if the outer skin was damaged, the passengers inside would be safe.
One might expect HTT to be slightly self-effacing when discussing the choice of the name ‘vibranium’, given it was essentially nicked from someone else and could, potentially, lead to legal issues. Yet the company’s CEO, Dirk Ahlborn, is breezily brazen about the issue. Last month he was quoted by Ars Technica as saying: "Captain America's shield is something that protects you. So vibranium for us was an inspiration. My kids are huge Marvel fans." It’s unclear whether this explanation would stand up against a copyright lawsuit.
Before people get too excited, it's worth pointing out HTT is just one of the companies racing to build the hyperloop – indeed its battle with arch-rival Hyperloop One is one of the many intriguing sub-plots surrounding the technology. Unlike Hyperloop One, HTT has yet to unveil a prototype of its design. Yet it certainly appears to be making progress: in July HTT and Deutsche Bahn announced they had agreed build an ‘Innovation train’, which would reportedly incorporate vibranium technology. It is also claimed HTT has met with the Slovakian government to map out express routes to Austria and Hungary (which would certainly explain why it collaborated with a Slovakian company to build vibranium), and there are also plans for a network between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
So perhaps the prospect of an HTT hyperloop isn’t that far away – and with it a technology which will cause a wave of geeking-out among Britain’s comic book community.