Penn Engineering students contribute design to futuristic Hyperloop transport

A team of students traveled from the School of Engineering and Applied Science to Texas A&M University to pitch their designs for the Hyperloop, a science-fiction inflected transportation concept that is the brainchild of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, a Penn alumnus.

Like a cross between a mail-delivering pneumatic tube and a maglev train, the Hyperloop would shuttle passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles at supersonic speeds, making the trip in a little more than half an hour. A series of powerful electromagnets would zip people-carrying pods along on a cushion of air. With no contact between the pods and the tube’s walls, friction would be all but eliminated.    

Last week, SpaceX held a design contest in a science-fair-like atmosphere, where teams of engineers proposed their vision for Hyperloop pods.  

With only 10 members—Penn Engineering undergraduates Mazin Blaik, Nikhil Chari, Daniel Harris, Krish Mehta, Stephen Michalowski, and Kellen Sanna, and master’s students Madhura Gurjar, Anirudh Kaushik, Jalaj Maheshwari, and Anirudh Subramanyam—compared to other teams with 70 or 80 members, the team decided to focus on the design of a single component, rather than an entire pod.

“When we started looking at pod ideas last summer, we asked ourselves, ‘What makes the Hyperloop the Hyperloop?’” says Mehta, a sophomore at Penn Enginnering who serves as team captain. “When you’re traveling so quickly, the air can pile up in front of the pod and create a lot of drag, so the compressor is really the core component.”    

The Hyperloop tube would not be a complete vacuum, which means there still would be a small amount of air pushing against the pod as it traveled. The compressor would suck in air from the front of the pod and push it out its sides, providing the friction-reducing air cushion. It would also shoot air out of the back of the pod, providing propulsion that would maintain the pod’s speed in the gaps between acceleration-inducing electromagnets.   

“The compressor is the only thing that lets pods go near the speed of sound,” says Kaushik, one of the team members who made the trip to Texas.

A handful of full-pod teams were selected to advance to the next round, where they will build scale models of their designs and test them at SpaceX’s headquarters this summer. The Penn compressor generated such sufficient interest that the University’s Hyperloop Team is now fielding requests to join other finalist teams.

More than the prospect of building the next wave of transportation technology, however, Mehta and his teammates are motivated by something more fundamental: exploring a truly novel idea. 

“SpaceX is trying to grow knowledge and encourage innovation,” says Mehta. “We thought it was really cool that this company was so invested in the pursuit of something new.”