The moment Deborah Navarro heard about Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s idea for a high-speed transit system straight out of science fiction, she saw a radical way of connecting communities while minimizing the environmental and climate impact of moving people around the planet.

Making that happen has become a mission for the 28-year-old entrepreneur, who was selected for this year’s Grist 50 list of emerging leaders in climate, sustainability, and equity. Navarro cofounded the New York startup AirLev, and the student-led research groups Texas Guadaloop and MIT Hyperloop III, to develop Hyperloop technology. “If you want to see where the future is, you see where the transit is,” she says.

Hyperloop is Musk’s vision of a network of trainlike capsules that would carry people and cargo through tubes at nearly 700 mph. It relies on electric propulsion to minimize emissions and near-vacuum conditions to reduce drag. The system is, in theory, more efficient than planes, trains, and automobiles.  Several organizations, from college engineering clubs to companies employing hundreds of engineers, have been developing proposals and prototypes. “The question really isn’t how long this could take based on a tech perspective,” she says. “It’s when do we want to make this happen?” 

Navarro grew up in the Texas border town of La Joya and was studying biology at the University of Texas at Austin when Musk described Hyperloop in a 2013 white paper, calling it the “fifth mode of transport.” Two years later, she and other students at UT launched Guadaloop to pursue the idea. Their entry in Musk’s Hyperloop Pod Competition in 2017 earned them an innovation award.

Fix thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Encouraged, Navarro founded AirLev in 2019 with engineers from UT and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop air-levitation technology (imagine a puck floating over an air-hockey table). The startup, along with MIT Hyperloop III, has since expanded its focus to include the tunneling and infrastructure technology that Hyperloop requires and that are also applicable to other industries.

Navarro has a busy summer ahead. The MIT team is unveiling new propulsion designs during European Hyperloop Week in July. It is also among Musk’s “digging dozen” competing in The Boring Company’s tunnelling competition.

Fix chatted with Navarro about sustainability, accessibility, air-levitation technology, and misconceptions around the Hyperloop. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How did transit become your entry point to sustainability and accessibility?

A. One reason I was drawn to transportation is because our largest carbon footprint is CO₂ from transportation. If I can create something in this space that’s really disruptive, it could be a huge way to offset carbon. 

Fix thanks its sponsors. Become one.

I grew up in a small town without access to education or the internet, and without being connected to the world. When I discovered Hyperloop, I thought about how it would connect cities like New York and Boston in minutes. I thought of how transformative that would be. It could allow people all around the world to access so much opportunity, experience, education, healthcare — you name it.

Q. How do you respond to skeptics who say Hyperloop faces several technological and safety challenges? 

A. Hyperloop tech is not as outrageous as people think it is. We’re building off of existing innovations and transportation.

A lot of people are worried about the G-forces it would inflict on the body, but I think that’s one of the least concerns. I’m more worried about a scenario if something happens to the tube itself, like it implodes. With any technology, you have to be careful. We have a lot of fail-safes in our system. What gives us more confidence is having designs in place for worst-case scenarios that we’ve been thinking about even before building our first prototype. Safety is always high on our minds. What gives me ease is working with really talented people at MIT, UT Austin, and SpaceX.

Q. Why use air levitation over the magnetic-levitation technology others are exploring for Hyperloop? 

A. Air levitation takes very little energy to achieve high speed and is very good at carrying heavy weight. We’re moving really heavy things, like cargo, in a very energy-efficient way within a 200- or 300-mile range. Magnetic levitation, because it uses high-powered magnets, consumes a lot of energy to get something moving because it must overcome all of the drag. 

We believe air levitation would be more efficient and allow you to connect major cities where you don’t really need to go 800 mph. An unknown when it comes to maintaining really high speeds is whether or not magnetic would be better, but there is potential to combine both.

Q. How do you assure people that public transit is worth investing in? 

A. President Biden is pushing forward infrastructure, which the U.S. needs. We shouldn’t forget that with a Hyperloop system or any mass transit system, the money that we’re putting in isn’t lost. We’re saving time, which is an invaluable resource. 

Q. What are you keeping in mind when it comes to routing the Hyperloop system? 

A. I think it’s crucial that, when building these transportation routes, everyone is respectful of protected environments and Indigenous communities and other marginalized communities. Something that truly affects me and angers me is whenever I see that folks — even people who I admire — are not being mindful of building in these communities. 

Q. What other applications do you see for technology that’s developed for Hyperloop?

A. We’re expanding into tunneling, regenerative braking, and other areas. Tunneling is the next piece in making this a reality. How can you make this happen? What materials are you using? You also need to think about how you get the cost per mile down.

If you innovate in tunneling and boring machines, this goal is more realistic. Boring is one of many things we’re working on.

One of the biggest applications for Hyperloop is connecting at ports, where emissions are huge. Many workers have lung issues because of all the fumes from all of the trucks that are in and out of the ports. Another application, which is probably the most useful one, but the least exciting to me from a commercialization perspective, is warehouse logistics. There are so many applications, including roller coasters, but I think the best-use case is connecting cities. 

The annual Grist 50 list recognizes emerging leaders in climate, sustainability, and equity — we call them Fixers — who are advancing new ideas and approaches to a better future.