MIT Team Tops Hyperloop Competition

Their pod design floats on magnets and moves very fast; but if they build it, will passengers come?

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MIT Team Tops Hyperloop Competition
Photo: Nargis Sakhibova

A student team from MIT won first prize last weekend for the best design for the Hyperloop, a subsonic train meant to hurtle between cities in an evacuated pipe. The 27 students, hailing from a dozen countries, beat out more than 100 other teams.

The Hyperloop was proposed in 2013 by Elon Musk, famous for his role in building Tesla Motors and SpaceX. Since then, it has spawned hundreds of do-it-yourself projects and two companiesHyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), founded in 2013; and Hyperloop Technologies, in 2015. Neither company participated in the competition.

Musk’s original sketch envisaged wafting capsules on a cushion of air fed by a compressor up front. The MIT team, comprising two-dozen-plus students from a variety of engineering and management disciplines, opted instead to levitate the capsule using 20 neodymium magnets.  

“Given the constraints of the competition, we determined that a compressor was unnecessary,” said Chief Engineer Chris Merian, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, in a video released by the university. “The pod uses magnetic lateral control modules to center it on the rail.  To decelerate from high speeds, the pod features mechanically fail-safe hydraulic brakes.”

MIT’s pod design is just that, a design—a product of  computer simulations. Team Captain Philippe Kirschen said that the next step is to build a prototype—one that’ll be much smaller than a full-scale Hyperloop would require. It will weigh in at about 250 kilograms and measure about 2.5 meters long and one meter wide. 

The team has until May to build its machine. That’s when the next, far more physical, stage of the competition begins, with actual pods shooting through actual tubes.

“Ideally, it will reach a speed in excess of 100 meters per second,” Kirschen told MIT news.

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