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Did These Undergrads Build A Working Prototype Of The Hyperloop?

The futuristic high-speed transportation tube seemed crazy when Elon Musk first detailed the system in 2013. Now some enterprising students are proving it’s possible.

Less than two years after Elon Musk unveiled his proposal for the Hyperloop, a crazy Jetsons-style tunnel that would shoot passengers from San Francisco to L.A. in half an hour, a group of undergraduate students has built a tiny working prototype.

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Mechanical engineering students from the University of Illinois mocked up a Hyperloop that’s 24 times smaller than the real thing would be. “We needed something that we could fit in one of our rooms,” says Carlos Pantano, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who helped advise the team. “We didn’t have a long straight place where we could put a pipe. So we made it into the largest oval that we could fit.”

Electromagnetic motors send a tiny pod flying through the small tube:

If the Hyperloop is ever built, it won’t have an oval track like this, because that would slow the vehicle down too much. There are some other differences from Elon Musk’s proposal–a cheaper motor and different bearings–but the essential idea is the same. It offers a little more proof that a real Hyperloop might actually be feasible.

“I have no indication that this thing cannot work,” says Pantano. “The fact that the students have been able to build a prototype–even if it is not exactly like what they have in mind, we managed to do something that I think is indicative that the concept is not unrealistic.”

The logistics of first building and then running the Hyperloop might be more of a challenge than the engineering itself. “Imagine people have to get in and out in the time given,” Pantano says. “That part may take more time than people think. Things like that are what can complicate the economics of a transportation system.”


Now, a new team of undergrads will pick up where the previous students left off. They plan to prepare a model of a Hyperloop pod and enter a new SpaceX competition to test the pod on the new Hyperloop track next to the I-5 freeway in Central California.

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“I’m from the Bay Area,” says Mizan Rahman, an aerospace engineering student at the University of Illinois who will be a junior in the fall. “The prospect of going down to L.A. in 35 minutes is kind of ridiculous…it’s a very interesting concept. If we can get it working, the Hyperloop idea could be applied all over the world.”

He’s confident it can happen. “I read through Elon Musk’s white paper, and he’s got a pretty solid idea of what can happen, and nothing really seems too crazy,” Rahman says. “There are definitely some safety issues, and everything will need to be over-engineered so the worst case scenario won’t injure anyone. But the concept doesn’t seem that crazy to me. We’re revamping the whole Panama Canal right now. And we’ve done crazier things in the past.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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