Imagine you just woke up. You have exactly 35 minutes to get from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area, a distance of approximately 900 miles. Not possible? Well, Elon Musk has made a career out of making the impossible, possible.
The founder of Zip2, X.com, PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla Motors, and Solar City, Elon Musk is a man in his own category. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Musk made a “simple” list of things he wanted to accomplish: revolutionize the Internet, develop sustainable energy, reinvigorate space exploration, advance artificial intelligence, and reprogram the genetic code. Nothing too hard, right?
Musk has time and time again shown that he does not conform to what others may think is possible. During much of his career he focused on sustainable energy, founding Tesla Motors and Solar City, as well as on space exploration through SpaceX. More about his amazing story here.
In 2013, Elon Musk turned his attention to a new form of transportation (since he did not have enough on his plate already). His proposed method of transportation is the Hyperloop. In the simplest terms, the Hyperloop is akin to a train that travels much as pucks on an air hockey table.
The Hyperloop is a pressurized capsule, enclosed in a continuous steel tube, that will ride on a cushion of air. In simpler terms, it is a large man-made tunnel placed on supports that move with the weight of the moving train. The train will move on skis of sorts, which produce a thin film of air. Research has shown that such skis can attain speeds of nearly Mach 1 (the speed of sound).
However, Musk’s designs are not without flaws. A number of articles, such as this one from Fortune, have been published concerning the design flaws in the Hyperloop. For instance, a mathematician from Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, Alon Levy, noted that the Hyperloop would be a “barf ride,” due to a principle defined by Tesla Motors as the Kantrowitz limit. This states that in a capsule moving through a tube of air, one can either move very slowly or move very fast. The latter may seem optimal until one realizes that any turns would produce painfully high g forces – the same forces one feels on a roller coaster, except multiplied to the point where they can cause internal organ damage or even death.
Because of these and other design flaws that make it difficult to make this theoretical masterpiece a reality, Elon Musk made the design open access and created a competition for teams to build a model Hyperloop. This first phase of the contest ends in January, when teams will present a design for a pod to SpaceX in front of a review board. Those that are selected are then tasked with creating a test pod for review. Of course, where there is a contest of this magnitude, students at Princeton could not wait to hop on the bandwagon. Princeton is working alongside five other universities (Cornell University, Memorial University, University of Michigan, Harvey Mudd College, and Northeastern University) on a single team. Initially, it was tough for these schools to come together and decide how they would split up the responsibilities for the design, but eventually, each school became a subteam tasked with specific parts of the Hyperloop’s blueprints.
The Princeton team is working on the Hyperloop’s electrical subsystem, so it is in charge of the microcontroller, which is a small on-board computer, the electronic speed control, the cooling of batteries and other equipment, and the design of optimal batteries or alternate energy storage systems. The team of students is advised by professors in the electrical engineering department, particularly Professor Daniel Steingart.
Keep an eye out for future reporting on the Princeton team’s research. Hopefully, the Hyperloop will become a reality in the near future, and we can all get a little more sleep every night.