No one was really surprised when Elon Musk took the stage on the final day of the SpaceX hyperloop pod competition.
During an international design weekend late last month, 1,000 student participants from 120 colleges and 20 countries had been using the hashtag #whereiselon.
Among them were nine students from Memorial University. They travelled to Texas to present their design for a prototype of a high-speed ground transport vehicle, an idea originally put forward by the Canadian-American billionaire inventor and entrepreneur.
“It was a really cool experience getting to know people we’d been working with online for the past seven months.” — Andrew Way
The students were part of an alliance of six universities, including Cornell, Northeastern, Harvey Mudd, Michigan and Princeton, combining their talent and resources to compete in the design competition as one team: OpenLoop. Their ultimate goal: to design, build and test a scaled down hyperloop pod.
“Nine of us went down from Memorial and met up with 40 other people from our team,” said Andrew Way, a joint computer science/physics student, who is Memorial’s campus project leader. “There are 105 of us on the team in total, but only 50 of us travelled to Texas, where we got to meet each other for the first time. It was a really cool experience getting to know people we’d been working with online for the past seven months.”
Mr. Way and the five other campus project leaders presented their team’s design to a panel of judges, including a former NASA engineer and a satellite engineer. A former astronaut even stopped by to check their design out. Out of more than a hundred presenting teams, SpaceX then chose 22 teams to go forward; OpenLoop was not one of them. But that wasn’t the end of the team’s story.
“The design we presented could only float 0.5 millimetres off the ground, while SpaceX required a floating height of 3 millimetres, so we were not immediately approved,” said Mr. Way, who is a native of Corner Brook. “However, SpaceX stated that the teams chosen during design weekend wouldn’t be the only ones going forward, and another 10 teams were in the process of being reconsidered.”
On the final night, SpaceX got in touch with the Openloop team, giving them 12 hours to redesign their pod to fit the requirements. While Mr. Way was flying back from Texas, emails were winging their way between the six universities. He landed to the news that the team was back in the competition.
“They emailed us at around 8 p.m. that night and told us if we could redesign our pod by 8 a.m. the following morning, such that it could float at a guaranteed height of 3 millimetres, we could continue,” he said. “The entire weekend I thought it was all over. Needless to say it was a sleepless night, but we revamped our design to output more air and SpaceX approved us.”
Mr. Way thinks his team’s design stood out because unlike the others, who had based their designs on magnetic levitation, OpenLoop chose to use compressed air for their suspension system.
“Mag-lev is something that has been tested and used for quite some time,” said Mr. Way. “There are mag-lev trains now, but compressed air trains are non-existent and something we wanted to try. It’s the same suspension Elon Musk’s white paper used, and I think that’s the point of this competition, to explore whether this technology works. I think our design was unique in that respect and I think the judges may have liked that.”
After the quick redesign, OpenLoop was given the go-ahead to move to the next stage of the competition: actually building the pod. The team will also be invited to test the pod in July on a mile-long track currently being built adjacent to SpaceX’s Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters.
“The design weekend was all about getting approval from SpaceX and getting our name out there,” said Mr. Way. “Our team now requires approximately $50,000 to build our pod and we are looking for companies that are willing to help us, either with materials or funds. We are currently looking for sponsorships and have been in contact with people we met over the weekend, but we are also interested in local companies here in Newfoundland and Labrador who could offer any expertise or materials.”
The Memorial team was responsible for designing and now building the pod’s air supply system, while the remaining systems will be fabricated at the other universities. All campus teams will eventually come together for the final assembly.
“It’s definitely going to be a busy couple of months,” said Mr. Way. “Everyone is starting to realize this could be very big, so we are expecting a lot more time from everyone. But it’s great to work with such extremely brilliant and talented people who are also enthusiastic about this technology and who feel the same way you do.”