A team of student engineers from Delft University of Technology is building a supersonic transport pod which they say could be fired through vacuum tubes at more than 600mph. The Hyperloop demonstrator will compete against 21 other teams on a mile-long test track near tech billionaire Elon Musk’s Southern California spaceship factory, SpaceX, in June.
Team leader Tim Houter hopes passengers might one day use it to rocket between Amsterdam and Paris in 30 minutes, but first there are several engineering challenges to clear. “It’s never been done before so everything is relatively difficult,” Houter told Science|Business. “If you were building a car you could look outside and get an example straight away – that doesn’t work here.”
Houter’s team, made up of 33 students, recently finished second in a first-stage competition behind engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). While the MIT team came top overall, Delft University won for most innovative design.
The prototype uses magnets placed over a conducting plate to allow the vehicle to hover around two centimetres above the track after the pod reaches a certain speed.
The world is ready for a new way to commute, said Houter. “In the past 40 years we’ve barely seen any innovation in the world of transportation. Which is stupid, because we still spend billions on traveling slow and using lots of unnecessary energy.”
The physics are hard enough to crack but the biggest barrier could be the cost of building a network of tubes on stilts and making them safe. “I don’t think the Netherlands will be the first country to build this because it’s densely packed with people,” said Houter. “You probably need countries with a lot of space – Australia or China would be my guess for a first destination.”
Slovakia – so far the only country to take the concept seriously – is exploring a Hyperloop route to connect Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, with Vienna and Budapest.
The Hyperloop idea is credited to Musk, who has frequently said he is dismayed by the amount of time spent commuting. He described the concept in a 58-page white paper in 2013, encouraging anyone interested to pursue the idea an dozens of universities and several start-ups have answered the call.
Hyperloop One has gathered a team of more than 100 engineers from Tesla Motors, Boeing, Lufthansa, and SpaceX and recently closed an $80 million series B funding round, which includes investment from the French national rail company SNCF. Deutsche Bahn Engineering & Consulting has also announced it will partner with the company.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has around 500 part time engineers located across the US, who collaborate by crowdsourcing ideas through weekly teleconferences. Rather than receiving any money, members earn stock options. The company is working with German virtual reality specialist Re'Flekt to think up a scenery simulation which could play inside the windowless pods.
Delft Hyperloop pod