As long as they don’t mind flying through an enclosed tube at 500 miles per hour, people may one day be able to travel from Baton Rouge to New Orleans in just 10 minutes.
A team of LSU engineering students has designed a hovering pod that can travel in a Hyperloop tube, a concept promoted by inventor Elon Musk as a “fifth mode of transportation” that is faster and more efficient than cars, planes, boats and trains.
The students presented their design Saturday at Texas A&M University where about 120 teams from around the country competed for a $75,000 sponsorship from SpaceX, Musk’s space exploration company.
The LSU students didn’t win — a team from MIT did — but they did get to do some networking during their down time at Saturday’s meeting and hope to find sponsors once they get back to LSU.
They plan to find their own funding to build a pod so they can test it in June when SpaceX is set to open a mile-long Hyperloop test track in California.
That doesn’t give them much time to build a Hyperloop pod — something that has never been done, said Connor Joslin, 21, a mechanical engineering junior from Mandeville.
“It’s a totally new idea,” he said.
The pods would float about a quarter-inch above the tube’s bottom using hover engines, which run on batteries charged by solar panels and spin to create electric currents. If the engines fail, the pod would fall onto a backup set of wheels and slow down, and passengers could safely exit the tube through doors placed along the route, Joslin said.
The students say they could build a test model that seats one person for $75,000, while a full-size pod seating four passengers would cost about $250,000.
William Myers, a 19-year-old finance student from New Orleans, estimates that a Baton Rouge to New Orleans route, including about 10 pods and an above-ground tube, would cost $850 million.
Though the much-talked about high speed rail line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans would cost about $720 million to build, maintenance costs likely would be higher for it because it’s a more mechanical system, Myers said. The train would also be slower, traveling at about 75 miles per hour and making several stops along the way.
The pods may also be a safer option.
They do not have drivers and travel on a single, enclosed pathway, so there is less risk for collisions that result from human error, Myers said.
And unlike many plans, which call for a vacuum tube, the LSU team is recommending 10.8 psi of pressure inside the tube, which is the minimum allowed in airplane cabins.
“If the pod loses pressure, that’s OK,” Joslin said. “They can get out and be safe, and you don’t have to worry about being in a vacuum and having your blood boil.”
The students started on their design in October. They’ve had help from a couple of experts — Carl Guichard, of the New Orleans-based hybrid car company Global-E, and LSU engineering professor Aly Moussad Aly — but have done most of the work themselves.
“Students tend to be less jaded,” Myers said. “When you tell somebody who’s 40-plus years old that you’ve got this new transportation system that’s going to revolutionize the world, they laugh at you. If you tell students ... it’s like, ‘Why not?’ ”
The LSU students admit their design is less flashy than other universities’ teams, who on Saturday gave presentations with impressive graphics, but they say their focus is on making something that will work in the real world.
“We’ve gone though different failure episodes, looking at the braking system,” said Evan Richard, 20, a mechanical engineering junior from Houston. “Or what if the cabin loses pressure? We have a backup plan. What if our levitation motors give out? We have a backup plan.”
Full-blown Hyperloop systems could be a reality in America in 10 to 20 years, Myers predicts.
“You’re talking about joining a lot of people’s economies,” said Josh Manriquez, a 24-year-old civil engineering senior from Slidell, noting that the stretch between the port cities of Houston and New Orleans is a busy shipping corridor.
“Maybe you want to stay in Houston or you want to stay in New Orleans. ... You can live anywhere and work anywhere,” Manriquez said.
Editor’s Note: This story was changed Jan. 31, 2016, to say that while it’s not known how much it would cost annually to maintain a high-speed rail system or a Hyperloop system, it is expected that a high-speed rail system would cost more because it’s a mechanical system.