The Pod Coast

Nearly 70 undergraduate students who span business and science and engineering programs joined forces in the LMU Hyperloop Project, competing in the 2018 SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition to design a self-propelled transport pod that can travel in an ultra low-pressure Hyperloop tube. What they learned and accomplished through their efforts will be the foundation for next year’s competition.

When students invest their brain power and time in technical research, spending hours and hours calculating and recalculating, entering various specs into a computer simulation program to try new designs that reach goals related to speed, weight or functionality, one might think they would want to keep their successes ― and especially their missteps ― to themselves. Not the interdisciplinary group of nearly 70 LMU students working for nearly a year on the LMU Hyperloop Project. They are part of an open-source competition to develop and share prototypes of what may eventually become a next-generation form of high-speed ground transportation ― the Hyperloop.

Now in its third year, the competition is sponsored by SpaceX, the Hawthorne, California-based company known for its advanced rockets and spacecraft and its pioneering founder and CEO, Elon Musk. At the first competition in January 2017, Musk himself made the purpose clear: “What the competition is intended to do is encourage innovation in transport technology, to get people excited about new forms of transport that may be completely different from what we see today, to get people to innovate and think about doing things that are not a repeat of the past, and to explore the boundaries of physics to see what’s possible, finding that it’s way more incredible than we realize.”

LMU’s transportation prototype, known as a pod, enjoyed some success in its first entry into the competition, with a design that made it through the first stage of SpaceX review. LMU was one of 47 universities from around the world asked to submit a final design in January 2018. Although LMU was not selected to build and test its pod in the race this summer, students are enthusiastically looking now to the 2019 competition. Team members are integrating technical feedback from SpaceX and plan a stronger proposal for next year.

“I’ve always wanted to be in field where I could actually contribute,” says Anthony Keba ’19, a computer science major who is leading the LMU Hyperloop Project. “I suppose it’s the Millennial in me. I really want to do meaningful work in my life. Being from the computer science field, I know that the tech world already has a strong notion of open-source development, with the entirely open-source platform of Linux as one example. So, it’s exciting to see open source coming to the engineering field in the bigger sense.”

As the faculty member who first connected LMU to the SpaceX competition, Ray Toal, professor and chair of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department in the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering, says there is an excitement that flows through the Hyperloop team. “Whenever you get a bunch of people in a room doing the stuff that they like to do, there’s a lot of energy. That’s infectious and makes you want to work hard, too,” he says.

Toal is unabashedly proud of the students’ effort. “Considering that the competition is from around the world and several teams have budgets of several hundred thousand dollars, it seemed like bigger schools might crush us, but LMU has a scrappy team that passed the first round of review. It was nice to make that first cut. It gave the team a lot of confidence.” That confidence is propelling the group forward as they tackle complex scientific challenges.

Speeds Topping 300 MPH

As currently configured, LMU’s pod is 6.5 feet long and designed to travel 310 mph on an aluminum rail through a reduced-pressure Hyperloop tube 6 feet across. With such an ambitious plan, every function must be considered, from the best motor and breaking system capable of withstanding the high speeds to how computer sensors handle the extreme environment and when they should transmit data to the control center. “The big challenge in this project is that everything is so holistic,” Keba says. “You could sit down and say, ‘We are going to choose our batteries. They are going to have this voltage and that number of amps.’ You do all the calculations to figure that out and then move on to pick a motor, but it may not work with the batteries. … Everything is so interconnected, and it’s in the numbers to figure out the perfect combination.”

“I’m working with engineers who don’t know what a business plan looks like, and they are talking about engineering concepts new to me, yet we are developing something together.”

Lauren Kenees ’18

Nicholas Lozano ’19 is a physics major and the leader of the electrical team, so he is focused on those batteries. “Our primary goal is to select batteries that take up the least space and have the most efficient output as possible. We plan to use about 160 batteries, so it’s all about finding the best way to configure the battery bank. Each battery is roughly the length of a brick and has about half the thickness.”

With that many batteries on board, they are likely to be the heaviest element of the pod, and they must also be the most protected. The volatile material inside batteries can be dramatically affected by the reduced pressure inside the Hyperloop tube. “We need to keep the batteries under pressure or the liquid inside them will boil away,” Keba says. “We are designing a gigantic box to hold the batteries that is completely airtight and can withstand the vibration of the high-speed environment.”

The mechanical team is grappling with designing a suspension system for the pod’s contact with the rail, which has a T-shape. “There are three dimensions of suspension to worry about ― the top, underside and side-to-side ― and each dimension has its own set of circumstances to overcome,” Keba says. “We had to think about designing the individual suspension arms differently.” The mechanical team relied on mathematical calculations and computer simulation to model the suspension. Scale testing will come later.

When it comes to technological exploration, knowing one’s limits can also be an important lesson. That’s why the suspension system relies on low-friction wheels rather than the most advanced form of travel on a rail ― magnetic levitation. Because this is LMU’s first year in the competition, it wasn’t practical to fully pursue magnetic levitation. Instead, a small group of five students is exploring a magnet design in what’s called a Halbach array, which focuses and intensifies a magnetic field in one direction and cancels the magnetic pull in the other. Using that stronger force to hold the pod in place would be promising. These students are regular members of the mechanical team, but they are going above and beyond doing this extra research.

Just like Musk hoped, Hyperloop has captured the imaginations of up-and-coming engineers, and the competition has worldwide appeal. As of February, 20 teams — from UC Berkeley to Virginia Tech, and others from around the world — were still vying to compete in July. So, while this competition is big in terms of the number of students involved, and even bigger in terms of the prospects for innovation, it doesn’t dwarf the real opportunity for individuals to have personal learning experiences.

Force Tests

First-year engineering physics major Ashley Agrello ’21 has found a niche on the mechanical team researching the pod’s carbon fiber material, testing how much force it can withstand, how much weight it can support and how little can be used to keep the pod’s weight down and speed high. “The experience is helping all of us become more comfortable in the working environment,” she says. “We can throw out ideas and not be intimidated.”

For Agrello and other students, LMU Hyperloop provides a first taste of real-world, hands-on learning. For example, students may study in the classroom how volts go through systems, but in testing electrical performance for the pod, they experience it. “One of the most important things for a college student is to apply our knowledge,” she says. “Until you apply a concept, you don’t really know what you are doing.”

The project is also providing opportunities for leadership and collaboration. Keba implemented a divide-and-conquer approach to draw out the best in his peers by arranging four teams — mechanical, electrical, software and electronics, and business — and appointing captains for each. The teams meet about once a week to discuss their specific research efforts, and the full group meets every Tuesday night to ensure important communication among everyone.

Still, not every lesson the pod teaches is about technology. Business team leader Lauren Kenes ’18 has been working on project funding by developing a sponsorship package to attract dollars from large organizations. Thus far, Boeing is in for donating more than $100,000 worth of carbon fiber for the pod’s frame and shell. The goal is to secure about $230,000 worth of parts and materials. As a business major with an emphasis in entrepreneurship, Kenes says the interdisciplinary experience is valuable. “I’m working with engineers who don’t know what a business plan looks like, and they are talking about engineering concepts new to me, yet we are developing something together,” she says.

Regardless of whether global student innovation ultimately translates into a viable form of transportation in the decades to come, there will surely be valuable discoveries along the way. “The importance of Hyperloop is similar to NASA and the space program,” Keba concludes. “We don’t use all of the developments from NASA in our lives directly, but we do use things like microwave ovens, DVDs and electric drills, which were inventions that NASA had to create to solve problems in space. For Hyperloop, there is incredible work being done with magnetic levitation, materials technology and energy storage that’s going to be beneficial in the future in other realms.”

Janis Rizzuto has been a freelance writer and copy editor for LMU Magazine for more than 10 years. She has a professional background in communications for the fields of education, financial services and health care. Rizzuto earned a bachelor’s degree in English from UC Irvine and a master’s degree in print journalism from USC.

This article appeared in the summer 2018 issue (Vol. 8, No. 2) of LMU Magazine.