Is the future of transport magnetic?

Project leaders from two well known universities have revealed their experiences in developing magnetically-propelled transit pods for the SpaceX Hyperloop.

The idea of creating new high-speed mass transit systems is a hot topic for many scientists around the world, as well as being one of the key talking points at this year’s ongoing Nor-Shipping. Spurred on by technology engineering entrepreneur, Elon Musk, the race is on to create pods that can transport passengers and cargo at high speeds. Musk has inaugurated the Hyperloop project with one of his companies, SpaceX. Although SpaceX was originally set up to explore aerospace manufacture and transport, with the ultimate goal of enabling colonisation of other planets, Musk recognised that harnessing the expertise of aeronautical engineers could revolutionise ground transport, and so set up Hyperloop.

The Hyperloop concept is being developed so that pods will travel at very high speeds along a tube. There are several Hyperloop sites being established around the world, and in 2015 Musk launched a competition to encourage the best international student groups to push the boundaries of science and create their ideas of how pods could operate.

Two such universities – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, in the US) and Delft University of Technology (TU Delft, in the Netherlands) – took part in the first phase of a competition in January this year to unveil their prototype pods at a Hyperloop test track in California. Challenged with a tunnel of one mile in length and six-feet diameter, the teams had to demonstrate that their pods could safely accelerate to speeds of up to 250 mph and break to a standstill without crashing. Both teams used magnetic levitation as their method of propulsion.

Max Opgenoord, a PhD student who is researching transonic aeroelasticity (the interaction between the aerodynamics and the structural dynamics of aircraft) was the project leader for the MIT Hyperloop team. “It has been an exciting ride,” he said. “When we started with the competition, no one knew what a Hyperloop pod should look like, so we had incredible design freedom. And now, almost two years later, we have demonstrated that a Hyperloop pod can be built. The levitation was definitely the most challenging part of the project, because there were so many options.”

As part of the competition, the rules stipulated that participants from different study areas such as engineering, technology, manufacturing, and business management should work together. Musk realised that in order for innovative ideas to become a realistic proposition for high-speed, low-carbon and scalable mass transit, a practical all-round approach would be needed.

Edouard Schneiders, an applied physics student was on the team for TU Delft’s competition entry. “It was very exciting to take part in this competition – the atmosphere was ecstatic,” he said. “Hyperloop is extremely fast and extremely efficient. It will have enormous social and economic consequences whilst vastly reducing emissions. Transportation has not significantly progressed since the release of the Boeing 747 and the invention of MagLev trains in 1970. The transportation industry needs to evolve and look for completely new solutions like Hyperloop in order to make a real impact.”

Experts from SpaceX and Tesla, along with university professors, judged the competititon entries. The TU Delft Hyperloop team won first prize overall, while MIT Hyperloop won an award for safety and reliability.

Hyperloop is already working with maritime partners, notably UAE terminal operator DP World, looking at how to harness the technology for shipping purposes. The company is also set to announce a first tie up with a containerline very shortly.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.
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