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MIT students win first round of SpaceX Hyperloop contest

05 February 2016

The MIT design topped more than 100 entries at an international high-speed transportation competition inspired by Elon Musk and sponsored by SpaceX.

A rendering of MIT's Hyperloop pod design (image courtesy of the MIT Hyperloop Team)

A team from MIT has taken top honours at a competition staged at Texas A&M University to design the Hyperloop, a high-speed transportation concept dreamed up by Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk.

Competing a field of more than 100 other teams from around the world, the group of MIT graduate students won the best overall design award for a vehicle (pod) that will ride inside the Hyperloop, a system of tubes connecting major cities — or what Musk calls “a fifth mode of transportation”. They will now move on to build a small-scale prototype of their design and test it this summer on a track being built next to the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

“MIT has been involved in so many technological breakthroughs in the past century,” says team captain Philippe Kirschen, a master’s student in aeronautics and astronautics. “It just makes sense we would help advance what might be the future of transportation.”

In 2013, Musk declared war on conventional inter-city travel. Last summer, he threw down the gauntlet, announcing a year-long competition to design vehicles for his Hyperloop scheme, a transit system ideally suited for major city pairs separated by 900 miles or less. In Hyperloop, people and freight are propelled in pods through tubes maintained at a near-vacuum. In the absence of air or surface friction, the pods travel at close to the speed of sound, using low-energy propulsion systems.

Pods must accommodate a mechanical pusher that will serve as a propulsion system, and may levitate inside a near-vacuum tube that encloses the track. The capsules must also be equipped with sensors that can broadcast real-time telemetry data during the mile-long run.

With strengths in aeronautics, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering and computer science, the MIT Hyperloop Team focused on speed, braking, stability, and levitation. For levitation, they developed a model for electrodynamic suspension that relies on powerful magnets placed over a conducting plate, which in this case is the aluminium track SpaceX is building. The magnets generate lift. “The beauty of the system we designed,” says Kirschen, “is that it’s completely passive, an elegant property that will make our pod very scalable.”

This innovation, a departure from Musk’s original notion of pods levitating on a cushion of air, required a major research effort. “None of us knew anything about magnets, and there has definitely been a steep learning curve for us,” Kirschen says. 

The team's winning capsule is roughly 2.5m long and about 1m wide; it weighs 250kg and, according to Kirschen, has the aerodynamic feel of a bobsled.

With the first stage of the competition behind them, the action now shifts to fabrication on a larger scale. The team will move from simulations to aluminium and carbon fibre, trying out braking systems, and, with great caution, testing dangerously strong magnets. Final assembly must be complete by mid-May.

“Ideally, it will reach a speed in excess of 100m/s,” Kirschen says. There will be no passengers on board for the 20-second inaugural run.

Reader comment:

From Mr Nick Cook

Much as I admire Elon Musk for his entrepreneurship and commitment to a better world I’m not convinced that he can claim all the glory for evacuated tube transport. Vis. “Hyperloop, a high-speed transportation concept dreamed up by Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk”.
I actually dreamt up a similar concept in the mid eighties, but when I eventually tried to find some support to develop the idea (in the mid noughties) I found that a certain Daryl Oster had already “Earned US Patent for Evacuated Tube Transport (ETT) 1999.”
(see here).

I also found the idea goes back to long before even I thought about it and I would be very surprised if Mr Musk was not aware of ET3, although as I understand it Hyperloop is slightly different in that it only intends to operate in a near vacuum and is not necessarily intending to use Maglev for propulsion, which would suggest that its top speed may be reduced a bit compared to the ET3 concept.

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