Students Are Battling to Make Elon Musk’s Hyperloop a Reality

SpaceX's competition in Texas this weekend will be the world’s loopiest, way-out science fair.
Source: Drexel Hyperloop Team

Baby boomers had NASA and the Apollo moonshots to inspire them to dream big a half-century ago. Kids these days have Elon Musk.

When the Tesla Motors Inc. and SpaceX chief executive officer first unleashed his outlandish idea for a Star Trek-style capsule transporting passengers on a cushion of air at 700 miles an hour, it seemed like pure fantasy. Well, guess what? A lot of people—many of them young engineering students—took him seriously. More than 1,000 of them are gathering this weekend at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, where SpaceX is sponsoring its first-ever, two-day Hyperloop Pod Competition, which promises to be the world’s loopiest, way-out science fair.

Hyperloop pod Elon Musk rendering

A sketch of the Hyperloop from Elon Musk's original 2013 paper.

Source: Elon Musk

"There are a lot of crazy ideas out there, but when ideas are associated with someone like Elon Musk it feels like, OK, this is something," said Anshuman Kumar, 22, leader of the Hyperloop team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and one of 20 CMU students traveling to Texas this weekend. "Everyone wants to be associated with the Hyperloop movement. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Arriving from 20 countries, about 120 college teams and three from high schools will descend on the vast Texas campus to present their designs. They’re flying in from India’s Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Egypt’s Cairo University, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and Imperial College London, to name a few. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is scheduled to deliver the keynote address.

Musk already has something of a cult following among a new generation of engineers, thanks to his work on electric cars, solar power and reusable rockets for eventual travel to Mars.

And now, the Hyperloop. Musk’s latest bright idea may or may not ever solve the world’s transportation challenges, but it’s certainly smart marketing. And the competition will bring the best and brightest engineering minds from around the globe under one roof, where SpaceX recruiters will have their pick of the crop.

The frenzy began with Musk’s Hyperloop Alpha, his 57-page manifesto released in 2013. The 44-year old Musk pulled an all nighter to finish his paper, which envisions a capsule hurtling on a cushion of air between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 30 minutes. Musk is the first to admit that pulling off such a feat will be no easy task.

"Short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome (someone please do this), the only option for super fast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment," Musk wrote. "This is where things get tricky."

 Hyperloop pod Elon Musk

A sketch of the Hyperloop from Elon Musk's original 2013 paper.

Source: Elon Musk

After the paper was made public, the number of people following Musk on Twitter skyrocketed. At least two startups are trying to commercialize the idea on their own. But last June, when SpaceX itself announced a competition to build a pod, the idea caught fire. Within a week of the announcement, the company received 700 entries; the final total was 1,751, with 123 advancing to this weekend’s design competition.

The conference will be held in the 30,000-square foot Hall of Champions, next to Texas A&M’s football stadium. Many demonstrations and talks will be live-streamed. Booths will be brimming with students, some bearing prototypes, eager to talk about their designs and secure corporate sponsorship. An as-yet-undetermined number of teams will advance to a finals competition to be held this summer at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, where they will demonstrate their full-scale designs on a one-mile working test track.

"It’s rare to get the opportunity to design something, for the first time, from scratch," said Liam Richardson, 19, an aerospace-engineering student at California Polytechnic State University in Pomona, who spent most of winter break Skype-ing with his teammates about design specs. "A lot about the Hyperloop is still unknown, and there’s no reference to go off of, besides Elon’s paper.”

Each team comes to the fair with its own interpretation of Musk’s idea. Stanford University students, for instance, are opting for a passive magnetic levitation, or maglev, system, said Kendall Fagan, 21, a mechanical-engineering student at the California school.

“Transportation is really exciting right now because of autonomous cars," he said. "But the Hyperloop is the most out-there idea in transportation. Part of the excitement is that this is something that has never been done before. Is it even possible? There are different schools of thought as to how the levitation is going to work."

While SpaceX’s competition is geared toward university students, a few high school teams made the cut. Six students from St. John’s, a private high school in Houston, call themselves the "HyperLift." Their parents are driving them to the event.

"We decided to go with air bearings because that’s what Elon proposed in his paper, and it wouldn’t be true to his vision if we just modified a maglev train,” said Andrew Awad, 17, a junior. “The integration between our cooling system and the air-bearing system is revolutionary.”

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