A group of LSU students has built a test model of what they say could be the future of transportation — a pod that would float inside an enclosed vacuum tube and travel fast enough to get a rider from Baton Rouge to New Orleans in a matter of minutes.
They’ll soon find out how their prototype stacks up against about 20 other designs. The 16 students will leave Thursday for Hawthorne, California, to begin practice runs on a one-mile Hyperloop track ahead of a competition they’ll participate in Jan. 27-29.
Hyperloop is a concept that inventor Elon Musk, whose SpaceX space exploration company recently opened the test track, first pitched in 2013. Hovering pods theoretically would sail through a tube at 500 to 600 mph.
“It’s a faster form of transportation using magnetic levitation to help eliminate rolling friction from wheels,” said Connor Joslin, an LSU senior majoring in mechanical engineering and the captain of the university’s Hyperloop team. “You put it in a vacuum tube to reduce the aerodynamic friction as well, so that way you don’t have as much inhibiting you from reaching high speeds.”
Hyperloop pods don’t have drivers and are controlled remotely by computer. On the test track, competitors will start out “driving” their pods at about 10 mph and progressively go faster, Joslin said, hitting speeds of 100 to 150 mph in the final run of the competition. The teams with the fastest pod and the best quality pod will get cash prizes.
As long as they don’t mind flying through an enclosed tube at 500 miles per hour, people may…
SpaceX invited the LSU students to its test track following a February 2016 competition at Texas A&M University where they presented their design. Their team didn’t win, but they remained convinced their design was worth bringing to life. They found sponsors and ultimately raised about $68,000 in materials and money.
The pod — which the students have been putting finishing touches on for the past few days — is 12 feet long, 3 1/2 feet tall and 3 1/2 feet wide. It is lightweight, with an aluminum frame and an outer shell made of carbon fiber. It seats one passenger — although there will be a dummy, not a real person, inside during their test runs in California.
The pod is powered by circular hover engines that have magnets and batteries inside. They spin at 2,000 rpm to generate electric currents so the pod can levitate above the bottom of the tube. That technology has already been used in “maglev” trains found in countries such as Japan, China and Germany.
“They all have high-speed trains that can go a couple hundred miles per hour,” Joslin said. “The only thing different about this is you put a maglev in a vacuum,” which speeds things up even more.
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While preparing for the Texas A&M competition last year, the students did a study that determined full-size pods with room for four passengers could be built for about $250,000, and a Baton Rouge to New Orleans Hyperloop route with 10 pods and an above-ground tube would cost about $850 million.
If the pods traveled at 500 mph, people could ride from Baton Rouge to New Orleans in about 10 minutes, Joslin said. Team member Grant Dietrich, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, said people involved in Hyperloop development estimate tickets would cost about $20.
The LSU team started building the test model in July but has done most of the work since last month. Joslin credits the project with teaching him “almost everything I know about engineering.”
“We learn a lot of stuff in class about the formulas and stress equations but this project allows you to go much farther in depth with everything,” he said. “You get to apply what you know from school and you get to apply it to a real-life scenario where you actually see the cause and effect of everything. You get way more detail.”
“I learned how to drill a lot of holes,” quipped John Babin, a mechanical engineering senior on the team who was working nearby on Sunday with teammate Ross Armond on the pod shell.
But Dietrich was quick to note that even the least exciting and seemingly unimportant parts of the project have offered valuable lessons.
“It’s a lot more practical experience I’ve learned more than anything,” he said. “Not just about design, but just the small things that you forget about when it comes down to actually building it. … Just because it should work does not mean that it will.”