An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Want to travel at the speed of sound? Elon Musk does and he’s engaging student teams around the world to design a new form of transportation vehicle capable of traveling that fast. Naturally MIT students were quick to respond and, in fact, won the first design round.

The Hyperloop Pod Competition focuses on the design of a pod, a prototype vehicle that will travel inside the Hyperloop track—an air-evacuated above-ground tube intended to connect major cities. At least that’s the vision that Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has been advancing since 2013.

The MIT Hyperloop team entered Design Weekend, the first stage of  judging, in late January at Texas A&M feeling confident and came away on top—their design for the pod was named best overall design out of the more than 100 teams.

A rendering of the MIT Hyperloop pod
A rendering of the MIT Hyperloop pod

“It’s important to us that we perform well in this competition both to represent MIT and to have the opportunity to contribute to what could be the future of transportation,” says team captain Philippe Kirschen, a master’s student in aeronautics and astronautics. “The thought that technology we are developing now could be part of a full-scale Hyperloop one day is tremendously exciting.”

The MIT Hyperloop pod is focused on three key technologies, high-speed, low-drag levitation, lateral control, and fail-safe emergency braking. Chris Merian, chief engineer and master’s student in mechanical engineering, showed a panel of industry experts and faculty advisors the effectiveness of their design through CAD drawings and specifications, simulations, cost of build, and timeline. Kirschen says that their team’s focus and commitment to design a pod that is safe, scalable, and feasible is what won the judges over and, specifically, their method of levitation—electrodynamic suspension.

Although Musk’s original idea proposed that the pod be lifted off the ground using air bearings, the MIT team has chosen a different way to keep it off the ground. “We chose electrodynamic levitation because it is massively simpler and more scalable,” says Merian.

Greg Monahan, levitation lead and master’s student in mechanical engineering, says that their decision to use electrodynamic suspension came after exploring several methods of levitation. “It’s entirely passive so we can design a permanent magnet array, stick it to the bottom, and use the motion of the pusher to generate our own lift so we don’t have to come up with complex control systems.” Monahan said that once they chose the levitation method, they did a lot of simulation and parametric studies to determine the best design for their system—settling on a design that set them apart in the end. “We had one of the lowest drag levitation systems,” says Monahan.

The team—which includes 25 students from aeronautics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and business management—will spend the next five months building and testing their pod. The final prototype will participate in a trial run on the one-mile Hyperloop Test Track at the SpaceX headquarters in California for the final Competition Weekend in June.

Read more about the team and follow their progress.


Mon, 02/22/2016 6:20pm

As a general proposition, anything that improves efficiency is a good thing. Calculating whether it's worth the cost, however, can be a complicated undertaking.
The benefits of the Hyperloop could be substantial - how much jet fuel will not be burned because passengers are traveling on the system? If there's the possibility of tacking on a cargo pod, for no more than the extra cost of accelerating the added mass, the fuel/CO2 savings could easily triple. Corporations pay employees billions every year for time spend sitting in traffic, airport lounges, and airplanes - recovering some of that time in the form of actual productivity would add up to quite a sum, and a true downtown-to-downtown 2-hour transit time would be spectacularly more efficient. These are among the "invisible" benefits that aren't immediately apparent, yet benefit the economy and the environment as a whole.
Desalination, by the way, has a thermodynamic cost that you can't escape with clever engineering. There's room for more energy efficiency, as with any process, but no free lunch. Grey water, on the other hand, has tremendous potential... what it lacks is glamour!

Sun, 02/21/2016 1:18pm

Congratulations to the MIT team! I think it is great that such an interdisciplinary team was convened to attack the problem. I think this is a very exciting engineering exercise and perhaps allowed the students to think well outside their comfort zone and interact with students from other disciplines. This experience will serve them well in whatever they do in the future - working with others towards a common goal!

My other comment is perhaps more directed to Mr. Musk and the "goal": Is the hyperloop really something the US needs? As an engineering challenge problem for students I think it is fine, but I can think of so many other, much higher priority problems, that he could focus his talents (and $$) towards solving - low cost desalination, national aqueduct (or some solution) to relieve flooding that occurs in many states and move the water to areas experiencing drought. I have to ask, who are the stakeholders and beneficiaries of this hyperloop? Yes it might create a lot of jobs, but once complete who really needs it? There has been talk of a high speed rail between LA and SF. In a state that suffers from significant water problems I find this absurd to think that any funds would go to a solution with no real problem (yes everyday everyone in California is so stressed out because we can't get to SF from LA in 2 hours - dang!, and we never worry about the whether we have enough water to flush our toilets. Ha). Or low cost grey-water handling systems that could be put into homes to recycle water - e.g., shower water. This could relieve the stress on our water treatment plants and water usage.

Again let me congratulate the MIT students on a very exciting win - I do not want to take anything away from their feeling proud of their accomplishment. But a systems engineer should always ask their stakeholders - are we solving the right problem?

-- Sam, '77 (Course 18)

Sat, 02/20/2016 8:24am

I am very proud of the MIT team and with you the very best.

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