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The Shed Trumps Silicon Valley in the Race for the Hyperloop

08/08/2013 14:44 BST | Updated 08/10/2013 10:12 BST

The age of the uncool geek is well and truly gone. When someone says "eccentric" or "inventor", no longer does it conjure up images of a crackpot in a shed tinkering away until they hit on an existence-shattering discovery such as a dual cheese grater-toothbrush. Now, the sheds of the past have been replaced by glinting multi-story glass monoliths, the rural back gardens have been transplanted to the sprawling tech campuses of Silicon Valley, and the eccentrics are the CEOs.

One such man is Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and co-founder of Tesla Motors and PayPal. The very fact that Musk has played a formative role in such a diverse range of companies speaks volumes for the type of man that he is, possessing both a brilliant business mind and an almost infantile desire to explore new areas with abandon, while others with comparative catalogues of success are content whiling away their days on yachts.

Musk's latest fixation - and the subject of an upcoming announcement on the 12th of August - is what he has dubbed the Hyperloop. Capable of travelling at 800 MPH and covering the distance between Los Angeles to San Francisco in half an hour, most are speculating that the design will be powered by solar energy and utilise either air-pressure or a maglev system in order to propel patrons toward their destination - all for a tenth of the cost of a high-speed rail network. Understandably, Musk's involvement has piqued interest in a project that has existed in various forms for some time, as it lends it a whole new sense of both possibility and feasibility.

However, it's not time to rule out the trestle table tinkerer just yet.

Andy Marks is the archetypal British inventor. Before "Tube Transport" (what he has dubbed the Hyperloop technology), it was the classic teenage fascination with homemade explosives (the aim was to create a "futuristic War Canon", naturally) and motorised vehicles of all sorts. True to type, Marks' initial inspiration for Tube Transport came when driving along the motorway and imagining every vehicle with a propeller, like an antiquated vision of the year 2000 from the 19th Century. From that, he began considering the idea of air-pressure propulsion and eventually arrived at something very similar to what Musk is said to be working on, with the caveat that this all happened a couple of decades ago.

Marks feels that the benefits of such a system speak for themselves. As well as the monumental speed possible, "it won't rust, corrode or even get dusty. It won't collide with other pods, pedestrians, trees, animals or insects; or emit hot burnt chemical pollutants." Environmentalism is one of the driving forces in Musk's interest in the Hyperloop (Tesla are responsible for cutting edge electric car technology), and this egalitarianism is something that defines both Musk and Marks; it's the desire to see this technology being used, not money or fame, that motivates them.

Given that the idea has been rattling about Marks' head for as long as Musk has been alive, it's not surprising that many of the issues with the system that Musk has identified have already been tackled head on by Marks. As well as believing he has the answer to the question of drag and friction stopping the tube in its tracks (or above them, as may prove the case), Marks also feels he has overcome the problem of switch points. So far, the high profile prototypes of the system have almost universally featured simple ovals, due to the inherent problems with maintaining the right pressure in more complicated circuits. However, using his experience in seals and valves, Marks believes he had developed a viable workaround - and with it, opened up whole new possibilities for networks and interconnectivity.

Musk has already proven his reciprocity when it comes to the ideas of enthusiasts, inviting budding inventors to attempt to predict his designs and dropping occasional hints as to the diameter of the pods and other technical details, but few have the scope of vision that Andy Marks does. This could prove the British shedventor's finest hour yet.