Three BHP students are part of a team of 70 UT students, called 512 Hyperloop, working to make Elon Musk’s concept of Hyperloop into a reality. Adnan Rupani, Vamshi Gujju and Shyam Gandhi are working on the business aspects for the team. In January the team competed against more than 100 teams in the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition Design Weekend. Unfortunately they didn’t advance, but that hasn’t put a stop to their plans. They are raising funds to build the Hyperloop pod they designed, and they plan to test it on the Hyperloop track this summer. We sat down with Adnan to learn more about their role on the team, and how their plans are progressing.
Can you explain the Hyperloop concept and how your team’s pod concept works?
Elon Musk describes this very well in his alpha paper for Hyperloop. Essentially, the reason cars, trains, and planes can’t move as fast as they potentially could is because of air resistance. Air is also much denser at sea level, where our current modes of transportation operate, so that poses an issue as well. Hyperloop aims to solve this issue by creating a system in which a pod moves through a tube within which there is a specialized environment. There have been proposals to create a vacuum in the tube, however, the problem with this is that a single tiny puncture hole can disrupt the vacuum and thus the whole system. If instead, you create a partial vacuum, you have a system with low pressure that can handle a leak or variation in pressure. Now, you have a tube with very little air, and a pod moving at a very high speed. There is a certain pod to tube ratio at high speeds that you can’t break, because if you break that ratio, then the system behaves like a syringe and stops the flow of air, forcing the pod to have to push all the air in front of it. This is known as the Kantrowitz Limit, or the syringe effect. There are two ways to fix that: 1) make the pod go really, really fast or 2) make the pod go really, really slow.
Obviously going really slow would defeat the purpose of Hyperloop. You couldn’t go too fast either because turns at that speed could injure or kill riders. To solve the syringe effect, you can put an electric compressor in the nose of the pod that sucks in the air and compresses it into air tanks so you don’t have to push the air, and instead just swallow it in as the pod moves through the tube. This also solves the problem of levitating the pod. If you want to create something with little to no friction, you can’t use wheels because they would rub against the surface of the tube. The compressed air that you are taking in from the compressor could be used for air bearings, which would allow the pod to levitate and move with very little friction. Some teams used electromagnets instead of air bearings, but we wanted to stay true to the original Hyperloop concept, so we used air bearings in our design.
In regards to our design, we wanted to focus on feasibility. I’m excited to say that our design is one of the few that could be put into production tomorrow, because we used parts that could easily be acquired off-the-shelf. Our pod is also relatively very inexpensive because it focuses on modularity. The components are easily detachable and the pod could be customized depending on the whether it is being used as transportation or freight.
And it would be completely safe for people?
Yes, it would be safe. You wouldn’t feel it. Just like if you are on a plane where you are going over 500 mph. There is a “pusher” system built into the tube that would accelerate the pod to whatever speed it needed to go and then once the pod is at that speed, passengers wouldn’t feel the velocity they are going at. However, there is a certain distance after which Hyperloop loses its efficiency. If you are going over 900 miles, it is better to just go on a supersonic jet, because at that range, a supersonic jet would be less expensive. For journeys that are less than 900 miles you would spend most of your time on a supersonic jet just ascending and descending and very little time at cruise speeds. That would be pointless because it would be expensive and inefficient. Hyperloop is ideal for journeys less than 900 miles apart, as it would get you there as fast or faster than a jet would, but without all the nuances of flying. It would provide the convenience of a train with the speed of a plane. Elon Musk goes much more in depth when it comes to the design and advantages of Hyperloop in the alpha paper.
How did you hear about it, and why did you think it was cool to get involved in?
I heard about it through Vamshi, and Vamshi’s friend is one of the leads for the project. Elon Musk is one of my role models, and I’ve told Vamshi and basically everyone I know about how amazing Elon Musk and his ideas are. So Vamshi knew I would be interested in it because Hyperloop is a concept he created. I’m interested in the concept because it’s a way to change the world.
If it comes to fruition, it’ll essentially change the very way we travel forever. We’ll be able to get from Dallas to Austin in 20 minutes. If you think of the implications of that, people could live in Austin and work in Dallas. People can set up meetings that would usually take hours to get to in minutes. The applicability and implications of that in the future fascinate me.
How difficult was it to secure a spot on the team?
We had to apply to it and they looked at our apps and what we had done in the past. Then we were assigned to work that was the best fit. For me, Vamshi, and Shyam, we were placed on the Operations Management team because of our business knowledge. We also have one journalism student on our team. He’s handling the PR side and takes care of the different news organizations, government issues, and setting up our tax status (since we’re a non-profit).
Did you come up with your own goals from the business side, or did the project lead direct your goals?
It was a bit of both. The head lead’s objectives for us was to make sure we maximize our publicity, create a professional looking website, and raise funds as soon as we can. Within our group, we knew we needed $35k to build the pod, an additional $10k to transport it, and around $5k for miscellaneous expenses. So we set a budget of $50k, and we contacted companies to see if they want to partner up with us, offering them sponsorship opportunities. Right now we have raised about $5k. We set up a HornsLink for private donations. Each donation also comes with perks, and every dollar counts. The hornsraiser ends March 20.
Tell me about the competition the team recently went to.
This was the first competition as part of the college challenge. It was a design weekend. Judges from SpaceX, Tesla, and other companies came to see the design and decided if it’ll progress in the initial phase of the project. We weren’t selected, but it was a great opportunity to gain access to sponsors and vendors who could donate to our team. For example, one sponsor came up to us, and his company built carbon fiber composites. Our pod design currently doesn’t use carbon fiber, but that’s an example of the type of people that were there. On the last day of the competition, the public was allowed to attend and learn more about the design as well. Although we didn’t advance in the initial phase, we will still be allowed to test our pod on the track.
Between now and June, what else can you do?
Since we worked so hard, we are going to use the feedback from the judges and redesign our pod and test it out on the Hyperloop track. During the testing, SpaceX and Tesla representatives will judge the built pods and determine which pod would be ideal for further testing and development. There will be cameras in the test tube, and audiences will be able to watch everything – including the crashes!
Elon Musk has planned to make this an annual competition until they find a perfect design which will be used in the future.
Are there any specific skillsets that you gained from working on the business side?
I think one of the overlooked skillsets we gained was effectively communicating with engineers and understanding the engineering concepts. It may seem simple, but there is a very different mentality and goal set between business and engineering. If you don’t understand what the engineers are saying or vice versa, it creates friction between the two groups. For that reason, understanding the engineering concepts that were behind Hyperloop was very important, and the skill is very applicable for us in the future. If we work at a tech firm, understanding its core technology will help us grow and develop the company effectively. Also, talking to corporations and getting them to sponsor our idea has helped me develop my professional communication skills. I also had never designed a website before, so I learned how to do that for the first time.
Why do you think he’s going about it in this way, challenging students to build the design?
One of the things I remember a speaker at design weekend said was “If you can’t figure out a problem, give it to your students and tell them it’s possible. They’ll figure out a way.”
Elon Musk had this concept while sitting in LA traffic, but he said he couldn’t fully devote to making it a reality because he is busy with SpaceX and Tesla – especially SpaceX because they’re building reusable rockets and changing space travel. So he published his concept paper online for anyone to access and work on.
There are actually some companies that are also working on Hyperloop. But he also opened this competition to students to create more enthusiasm about Hyperloop and generate additional PR. It’s an amazing challenge and opportunity for students because we get to be a part of something that can potentially change the world.