Elon Musk's Hyperloop gets people excited. Promise the ability to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than an hour, and you're going to get people salivating. But for as much as we've heard about it, we've had scarcely little to see—until a team of students at the University of Illinois decided to build their very own miniature hyperloop.
Mechanical engineering students at the university built a functioning 1:24 scale model of the Hyperloop, a "fifth mode of transportation" that sends pods through a partially pressurized tube at very high speeds, as part of a senior design project. It was designed to test some of the key components of Musk's design, which was outlined in a much-read, open source white paper published in August of 2013. That said, there are several key differences, which keep this from truly being a proof-of-concept as to whether or not the Hyperloop will ultimately work.
The University of Illinois hyperloop takes up an entire room and does indeed send small pods through a metal tube in an oval loop. As proposed by Musk, Hyperloop "pods" would float on a layer of air, much like an air hockey table. They would be propelled through a pressurized tube at slightly less than the speed of sound by electromagnetic motors placed along the insides of the tube. The University of Illinois project preserves some of those features, but compromises on others.
"We had to make some simplifications to the prototype. We use roller bearings instead of air bearings, for instance," Andrew Horton, a recent graduate who helped lead the project, told me. "For the sake of our prototype, it wasn't feasible to have that complex of a system implanted in one semester. We're thinking future classes will take our work and move forward with it."
Horton's hyperloop uses electromagnetic motors just like Musk's Hyperloop and it's able to propel a miniature pod through the tube at speeds of up to 3 meters per second. If scaled up, that amounts to roughly 160 miles per hour, which is far slower than the 760 mph Musk proposed.
There are a couple reasons for the discrepancy. Roller bearings are slowed down by friction. Horton's hyperloop has a vacuum pump to depressurize the tube (cutting down air resistance, allowing pods to travel faster), but it wasn't tested by the end of the semester. Last, the team is planning on adding additional motors to help speed up the pod.
Importantly, the Illinois hyperloop is an oval, which creates a new set of problems: Critics have said it's nearly impossible to make the Hyperloop turn without losing a lot of speed or creating a safety hazard, but at such low speeds and on such a small scale, Horton's team decided to build it in an oval shape anyway.
"You get a lot of friction when you turn, so I can see where the criticism is coming from—the real Hyperloop wouldn't be an oval, it would go straight is if you were going along a highway," he said.
In any case, the University of Illinois hyperloop could be an important step in showing the world what this technology might actually look like.
"There's been so much talk and simulations, but no one has actually built something. We wanted to have some sort of experimental results to have it inform the hyperloop concept," Horton said. "The purpose was to actually start building something."
Very soon, others at the university will start building something for a much larger hyperloop based on Musk's exact specifications. Last week, SpaceX announced the Hyperloop Pod Competition, in which various university teams will build a hyperloop pod and test it out on a mile-long track at SpaceX's Hawthorne, California headquarters in June of next year. Already, the University of Illinois has set up a team with more than 150 students.
"After I saw this competition, I started a team almost immediately," Mizan Rahman, the student leading the group, told me. Rahman was not involved in Horton's prototype, but he says that the model will help inform how his team goes about building its pod.
"When Elon Musk released his paper, I immediately knew I wanted to work on this future after college or during college," he said. "Things are going to have to come together quickly."