Carnegie Mellon University joins SpaceX Hyperloop Pod competition
January 26, 2016 12:00 AM
Carnegie Mellon University Hyperloop Team members, from left, Laine Mallet, Himanshu Rasam, Loren Russell and Richard Stavert, all graduate students, pose for a portrait with a preliminary scale pod mockup.
By David Templeton / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Imagine traveling from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia in 24 minutes or to Erie in 10. How about a commute Downtown from Washington, Pa., Greensburg or Cranberry in 2 to 3 minutes?
While scenery flies by at dizzying speed, the ride would be smooth as silk because this high-speed ground transportation essentially involves a vehicle levitating inside a vacuum tube.
For the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition, Carnegie Mellon University and 120 university teams worldwide are designing half-scale pod-like vehicles capable of doing just that. The competition goal is speeds of up to 200 mph but eventually approaching the speed of sound at 760 mph. That’s nearly 50 percent faster than the average cruising speed for airlines.
The 75-member team at CMU’s Integrated Innovation Institute is doing all the engineering and design while marketing the project for funding. Some have been working every spare minute since summer to develop their prototype under a June deadline.
“These guys are really laboring. It’s an incredible amount of work, and they are tremendously committed and self-motivated,” said CMU faculty adviser Julian Boxenbaum, a professor of practice at the institute. “They really pulled together what I consider to be an all-star team with eclectic and diverse backgrounds to reach the greatest level of success possible.”
The competition was announced June 15 based on a white paper that Elon Musk, the 44-year-old founder of SpaceX, Tesla Motors and PayPal, released in 2013 outlining his idea for the Hyperloop. The competition is designed to accelerate development of a functional prototype. SpaceX and competing companies in California, Asia and elsewhere already are working on Hyperloop transit systems with costs being the biggest challenge.
In parallel with the competition, SpaceX is constructing a scaled-down test track that’s a mile long with an inner diameter of 6 feet, all adjacent to its Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters, the competition website says.
Immediately after word of the competition went online, Anshuman Kumar, 22, of Delhi, India, contacted fellow CMU students to create a core team. The project lies outside their course work, with members working daily 12-hour shifts over winter break. They’ve already raised $25,000 through crowdfunding while seeking corporate sponsors to meet the $100,000 budget necessary to complete the pod before the competition deadline.
This weekend, they will participate in Design Weekend at Texas A&M University, where 100 teams and 1,000 students will present plans while SpaceX and Tesla engineers and university professors analyze their progress and corporations choose teams to sponsor. Only about a dozen teams will survive the weekend to build prototypes for the June competition.
On Friday, the CMU team presented its plans to CMU professors, including Jay Apt, a professor of technology and director of the university’s Electricity Industry Center, who said the presentation was inspiring.
Based on the design, Mr. Kumar said his team’s pod will use a battery-powered motor to operate an air compressor, which will feed into a set of pneumatic devices known as air bearings. They will produce strong jets of air coming from below to lift the pod about a half inch off the guide rail. For its presentation, the team developed a shoe-sized model of the prototype to demonstrate how air bearings allow it to slide over the desktop even better than a puck on ice.
The Hyperloop would operate in a much more complicated but similar way as the plastic canister containing your paycheck or loan payment gets sucked from outside your car window to a teller inside the bank. Capturing and compressing air eliminates air resistance while the air bearings reduce friction nearly to zero, allowing the pod to maintain speed through the mile-long Hyperloop with electromagnetic brakes bringing it to a stop.
The trip will last but 26 seconds.
“The same viable design can be scaled up to full size and go 760 mph, which is the advantage of using air bearings rather than magnets [for levitation],” Mr. Kumar said.
Mr. Musk’s concept calls for electromagnetic boosters, powered by solar panels, to supply acceleration during the 30-minute trip of a proposed Hyperloop between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Mr. Kumar, who’s seeking a master’s degree at the Institute, said the CMU pod can carry a 600-pound payload and travel 190 mph.
Designing something that’s truly innovative means no guarantees, Mr. Boxenbaum said, calling the effort Herculean with the chief obstacle being the tight deadline.
“They are always shooting for the moon, and Elon Musk and SpaceX have set the bar incredibly high and expect few if any to clear the bar,” he said. “But I think our team will be in as good a position, if not better, than anyone else there.”
David Templeton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1578.
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