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Whooshing into the Future: Aiming to Make Speed-of-Sound Commutes a Reality

June 20, 2016
by Nick Fiske

Remember pneumatic tubes, those compressed-air pipelines that whisked plastic canisters from basement mailrooms to penthouse boardrooms? Imagine being in one, traveling at more than 700 mph. You could make the round-trip from San Francisco to LA in a little over an hour. That may sound like science fiction, but it could one day be a reality thanks to the efforts of engineering students at UC Berkeley and elsewhere.

Hyperloop, a concept first proposed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk (who called his idea “a cross between a Concorde, a railgun, and an air-hockey table”), would have citizens of the future commuting in pressurized pods about the size of a train car, rocketing through low-pressure tubes at speeds faster than most passenger jets travel.

In a bid to make the vision reality, Musk launched an open-source design competition through his aerospace company, SpaceX, in 2015. Since then, hundreds of teams from universities and private groups around the globe, including nine from UC campuses, have submitted prototype designs involving everything from propulsion systems to station designs.

After the most recent round of competitive review in late January, the number of finalists was winnowed to 30 teams. One of those is Berkeley Hyperloop, or bLoop, a 40-person team made up entirely of Cal students and faculty mentors.

The last stage of the competition will be held in August, when scale-model pods will be showcased on a mile-long test track at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne.

The Berkeley prototype uses magnetic levitation (maglev), the technology currently employed by the world’s fastest trains. Maglev uses a magnetic field to create both lift and propulsion, with acceleration achieved via a linear induction motor.

The bLoop team is divided into two divisions, Marketing and Technical, with the technical division further split into four units: Chassis, Acceleration and Braking, Signals and Controls, and Internal Systems. Three faculty mentors and two SpaceX advisors oversee progress.

Tyler Chen is an engineering major, and the Acceleration and Braking lead. The large size of the bLoop prototype sets it apart from other teams’ smaller models, says Tyler, noting that the goal is to have the pod be 60 to 80 percent of full size.

Ray Chen (no relation to Tyler) is the Chassis lead on the project. This summer he’s interning at SpaceX, which plans to make commercial space travel viable. “Hopefully I’ll work on the new Falcon 9,” he says, smiling.

Indeed, critics caution that many of the prospective problems with hyperloop remain to be solved. There is debate regarding the physical toll on human bodies traveling at close to the speed of sound—for example, the so-called vomit factor.

Mechanical engineering major Neelanjan Lahiri, who is the Internal Systems lead, says the Berkeley team took a pragmatic approach to the design challenges. “We asked what could go wrong and built from there. Rather than be the fastest, we’d rather have it be the pod that works, that can be scaled the most.”

The bLoop pod will be constructed mostly of aluminum and, with the exception of certain specialized components, entirely manufactured by students. The cost is expected to be between $50,000 and $60,000, paid for by private sponsorship and the University.

While the engineers work out the technical details, the marketing team pitches potential backers on the big picture, stressing what the team sees as the social benefits of the project. A hyperloop mass-transit system would combat the effects of gentrification, for example, by allowing easier intercity commutes. From an environmental standpoint, a solar-powered hyperloop would cut down on automobile emissions.

Private companies have already begun to test their own hyperloop prototypes. In May, a Los Angeles–based startup called Hyperloop One made headlines with a test run on a 300-meter track in the desert outside Las Vegas, accelerating a 1,500-pound sled to 116 mph in just under 2 seconds. Impressive, certainly, but still a long way from the revolutionary new mode of transportation that hyperloop boosters envision.

Indeed, critics caution that many of the prospective problems with hyperloop remain to be solved. There is debate regarding the physical toll on human bodies traveling at close to the speed of sound—for example, the so-called vomit factor. And constructing cross-country tubes over mountains, under water, and through population centers will pose significant engineering challenges, involve enormous costs, and pose major political hurdles (consider the ongoing saga of the California High-Speed Rail project). Finally, there’s the pesky issue of safety to contend with.

“Honestly, a hyperloop crash would not be survivable at high speeds, no matter what you do,” conceded Berkeley’s Lahiri. At the same time, he said, controlling the pod, both remotely and with emergency on-board controls, is proving difficult.

Such obstacles notwithstanding, Elon Musk and other techie visionaries are already thinking beyond mere Earth travel. They imagine hyperloop as the future mode of transport on Mars. On a barren planet with less gravity and thinner air, a hyperloop might make the ideal tram system. Forget whooshing between San Francisco and L.A. in 35 minutes—imagine zooming through the canyons of Valles Marineris and to the heights of Olympic Mons. After all, as long as we’re dreaming, why not dream big?

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