Fast track to the future

Fast track to the future

The Hyperloop transport concept, which iconic inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk outlined in 2013, has prodded a lot of scientific minds to action. A team of students at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands recently won the first competition to test its feasibility.

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Elon Musk, father of PayPal and Tesla, has made history with radical brainchildren such as SpaceX and Solar City, and he is currently busy preparing the first trip to Mars. In 2013 he presented the Hyperloop concept, which is basically a mass transport system through a near-vacuum tube. Because air resistance is almost negligible, speeds of more than 1,000 kilometres per hour should be feasible. In Musk’s vision, pods should float frictionless through the tube, borne by an air cushion.

From the onset, we opted for a comprehensive approach.

Quint Houwink
Aerospace student and team member

In 2015, Musk announced he was too busy to work on the Hyperloop himself, and he invited the world to take it from there. To stimulate its development, he had a “test tube” built in California and organized a competition. From the preliminary rounds in Texas, which involved some 200 entries, 30 teams were selected for the finale, which was to be held at SpaceX’s headquarters in California in January 2017. Three of the teams were ultimately selected for the last run. One of them was the 34-member Delft Hyperloop team, comprising students from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

A helping hand

The Delft University of Technology has a long tradition of participating in (and winning) competitions for lightweight electric racing cars and solar-powered vehicles. The ties between SKF and the student teams are equally longstanding and successful. So when some assistance was needed with the Hyperloop, SKF was glad to step in as a partner.

The Delft Hyperloop pod boasts some magnetic levitation and braking technology, which had to be tested at very high speeds. To simulate that, a horizontal aluminium disk was constructed. SKF offered technical expertise and parts for both the disk and the linear braking system on the pod.

Says Igor Dorrestijn, project manager at SKF Engineering and Research Centre in the Netherlands, “We support a lot of these kinds of initiatives, obviously hoping that the next generation of graduates will be eager to join us or use our products. We’re glad to support projects that transform students into well-rounded engineers.”

Half-scale model of the pod developed by the Delft Hyperloop team.

The Hyperloop concept

The Hyperloop dream has been around for 200 years, but Elon Musk was the first person to spur a serious attempt to turn it into a system for mass transport. The system involves tubes with a near-vacuum, 0.001 bar atmosphere through which pods with passengers or freight could travel almost frictionlessly at speeds of more than 1,000 kilometres per hour. Building the infrastructure would cost billions, but it would still be cheaper than a high-speed rail system, and the operating costs would be a fraction of that of any alternative mode of transport. When the entire trajectory is covered with solar panels, the Hyperloop could potentially even generate more energy than it uses. The Hyperloop should be commercially viable at distances of between 500 and 1,000 kilometres.

Aerospace student and team member Quint Houwink explains the team’s thinking. “From the onset, we opted for a comprehensive approach,” he says. “We studied not only the technicalities, but also the design, the economy and the scalability and sustainability issues. So we had students from all faculties taking part.”

Quint Houwink, member of the Delft Hyperloop team.

While elaborating on Musk’s original idea, the team made some major alterations. They concluded that magnetic levitation would be a better option for a frictionless operation than Musk’s air cushion. They also developed the idea of a linear electric motor and came up with a revolutionary, inherently safe braking system that even recovers the energy used to speed up the pod.

Interior of the pod.

In January, the team and their half-scale pod travelled to California where they competed against a German team from Munich and an American team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although the Germans had the fastest entry, the Dutch team eventually won the competition and took home the award for “best overall design and performance”.

The pod developed by Delft Hyperloop team was awarded for best overall design and performance.

The Delft Hyperloop team was disbanded after the competition, but its achievements have become the foundation of a commercial start-up enterprise, called Hardt. Four former members of the team have begun to redesign the pod and are currently attracting investors to make the Hyperloop a reality. In the meantime, preparations are under way in California for the next edition of the Hyperloop competition. The Delft University of Technology will certainly be there with a brand new team.

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