Looking to the Loop

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Looking to the Loop

Yeom Jae-ho
The author is an emeritus professor and former president of Korea University.

Good news is coming to Korea’s science and technology community. The country successfully launched Korea’s first domestically-developed rocket, Nuri, last month, which cost 1.96-trillion-won ($1.5 billion) to develop from 2010 to 2013. With that success, Korea became one of seven space powers in the world. The moment represents not only a marvelous achievement by the state-funded Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) but also the triumph of space technologies from the private sector. Hanwha Aerospace developed a liquid-fueled rocket engine and assembled six of them for the Nuri rocket. After watching the successful launch of the space vehicle, Kim Seung-youn, chairman of Hanwha Group, sent a letter to all employees of the company to thank them for their unflinching devotion to the development of the engines over the past decade.

Last week, June Huh, a professor of mathematics at Princeton University, received the Fields Medal, dubbed the Nobel Prize of Mathematics, in Helsinki for solving many conundrums, including Read’s conjecture and Rota’s conjecture. The prize is only awarded to mathematicians under the age of 40 every four years. The feat proved Koreans’ excellence in basic sciences as well. Huh finished his undergraduate and master’s courses at Seoul National University although he was born in the United States.

Such accomplishments make us harbor higher expectations for more Korean’s to be named Nobel laureates. Despite its relatively short history of researching science and technology in a full-fledged way, Korea produced a number of renowned scientists at prestigious universities around the globe, including Harvard.

A repeated emphasis by Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong on the importance of maintaining unrivalled technological leverage after his recent trip to Europe still reverberates in a country without abundant natural resources. Top levels of technology can ensure security for the country too. In this vein, President Yoon Suk-yeol’s obsession with fostering talent for semiconductors is understandable.

One major technology that will change the course of human civilization in the 21st century is transportation. Virgin Hyperloop — an American transportation technology company trying to commercialize high-speed travel through a vacuum tube — says more than 100 countries have inquired about construction of a total of over 2,600 tubes. Such construction is being discussed in the U.S., Canada, Europe, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, India, China and Russia. Japan has already started building a super-speed maglev levitation train system linking Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.

Hyperloop transportation technology can move passengers at the speed of 1,200 kilometers per hour, 1.5 times faster than airplanes. Given an increasing reluctance to travel by air for fear of massive carbon emissions from aircraft — just think of Greta Thunberg, the 19-year-old Swedish environmentalist — the hyperloop system is ideal as a future transportation means. It is wrong to deny the possibility of the technology being realized sooner or later given mankind’s Moon landing in 1969.

The Secretariat of the National Assembly estimates the cost of building a new home for the legislature could reach 1.43 trillion won. How about embarking on a pilot project to link Yeoeuido to the Sejong Administrative City by 2030? If this is successful, we will see another public transportation revolution enabling people to move to any part of the country within one hour following an earlier transportation revolution in 1970, when anyone could go to any part of the country in one day through the Gyeongbu Expressway. According to Elon Musk, it would cost less than two trillion won to connect Yeoeuido and Sejong city — 130 kilometers (81 miles) apart — with a hyperloop. If it is built, it would take only five minutes from Yeoeuido to Sejong and 20 minutes from Seoul to Busan. If so, why should we build another legislative building in the administrative city?

Korea’s hyperloop technology is one of the best. The Korea Railroad Research Institute (KRRI) has succeeded in an aerodynamic test for a speed of 1,019 kilometers per hour. The institute also acquired a new technology for the Levitation System based on the separation of the freezer for the first time in the world. If we build the system on our own, construction costs could be cut to half that of the KTX and operating cost to 45 percent of KTX. Solar panels on the top of the tube can save electricity costs.

When NASA pushed the Apollo program in the 1960s, it met strong political resistance in the U.S. But after turning the impossible into the possible, America emerged as the superpower. Space development technologies of NASA were soon transferred to the private sector, leading to the inventions of air cushion footwear, instant coffee, fuel cells, shape memory alloys, laser technology, Gore-Tex and video technology. If Korea can preoccupy the new frontier of hyperloop, we can expect an immense transfer of cutting-edge technologies to the private sector.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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