SpaceX Hyperloop: Delft University Reveals How It Will Break Speed Record
Delft Hyperloop is back, and it claims it’s about to break the speed record for hyperloop. As 20 teams gather in Hawthorne, California, for SpaceX’s third pod racing competition on Sunday, the Netherlands-based group could be one of the key drivers in a transportation revolution.
“Our objective is to go faster than the current record,” Clément Hienen, the team’s design engineer, tells Inverse. “For sure, we designed to break the record.”
It’s a bold claim, especially considering the wider industry. When Elon Musk first released his white paper for a vacuum-sealed-tube-based transportation system in 2013, he claimed pods could fly through at a theoretical maximum speed of 700 mph — cutting a six-hour drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco down to just 30 minutes. Musk’s own firms set a public speed record of 220 mph in August 2017, only for Richard Branson-backed Virgin Hyperloop One to beat the record with 240 mph in December 2017. Delft plans to beat both of these.
The team is building on the successes from the first SpaceX competition in January 2017, where it beat WARR and MIT Hyperloop to win the highest overall score (although WARR achieved the highest speed of 56 mph). In all competitions, contestants are asked to accelerate their pod through SpaceX’s 0.8-mile test tube, coming to a stop before the end. Rigorous safety checks mean only a small subset will likely compete: In the first competition, only three teams out of 30 were cleared.
Members of Delft’s winning team went on to found Hardt Hyperloop, which claims to be Europe’s fastest-growing hyperloop company. Edouard Schneiders, who served as engineer in the first competition team, became team leader of a new Delft Hyperloop group. Schneiders received tons of applicants, and ultimately whittled down the candidates to a dedicated team of 37.
Unfortunately, this left little time to prepare for the second competition in August 2017.
“We decided not to join the second competition because it was so quick after the first competition,” Maaike Hakker, the team’s chief of marketing and finance, tells Inverse. “We didn’t want to work on the old vehicle, we really wanted to make a new one.”
In Delft’s absence, WARR claimed the top prize with a top speed of 201 mph, 29 percent of the way to Musk’s theoretical maximum. The 176-pound pod was built of carbon fiber and used a 50-kilowatt electric motor, with an internal array of 36 sensors to make sure everything runs smoothly while high-precision bearings and aluminum wheels kept the pod on the rail. Delft started work on its next entry in September 2017, and in the nine months since the first event, competition had grown intense.
“Such an experience is very unique,” Heinen says. “We work together almost seven days a week, day and night. The working hours were very, very late sometimes. It’s nice to see how much passion goes into such a team.”
Delft’s vehicle, dubbed Atlas 01, uses two parts: a launcher and a passenger module. The module can rest on top of the launcher to move passengers and cargo at top speeds, but only the launcher will move through the tube during the competition. Propulsion is achieved using a wheel clamped onto the hyperloop track for maximum grip, while pneumatic brakes offer a fail-safe system to avoid emergencies. Power-to-weight is the team’s big target, with Schneiders claiming Delft “fought for every ounce.” Unlike the first two competitions, the third will be judged solely on maximum speed, which made this the top priority for the design.
“It’s also important to think about the bigger picture and involve as many disciplines as possible,” Heinen says. “Most of the teams are very very technical, but we also include architects, designers and civil engineers for the bigger picture.”
While the engineers focus on the pod designs, these other contributors are looking at issues like tube placement, future station design, and ticket prices. Delft estimates the future cost as comparable to that of an airplane ticket, with construction costing $40 million per kilometer, while being three-and-a-half times more energy efficient than an aircraft. Delft believes a hyperloop tube could maintain near-vacuum conditions using a combination of pumps, which would adapt in case of leakage. In a severe emergency, the pod could stop completely in just 30 seconds and evacuate passengers through one of the frequently-placed tube escapes.
Part of the reason for this work is to show how a hyperloop system could work without the constraints of the SpaceX competition: the test tube only measures 72 inches in diameter, and the short distance means acceleration and braking times that won’t be necessary for a passenger hyperloop. The team believes hyperloop can reach its maximum speed comfortably over a distance of 44 miles.
“The acceleration [on a public hyperloop] will actually be slower because if you accelerate this fast it will not be comfortable,” Heinen said. “The speeds will actually be a lot larger because on large tracks, for example from Amsterdam to Paris, that will only take you 30 minutes because speeds of 1,000 kilometers per hour will be reached.”
The team has been in Los Angeles for the past two-and-a-half weeks, but it was only allowed to enter the SpaceX campus last Sunday. During the interim period, Delft worked on the pod at its partner DHL’s workshop. The partnership also helped Delft organize delivery of its unique battery to the United States, working with national governments to ensure its safe passage from the Netherlands.
The custom-built, airtight lithium polymer battery arrived on site Friday, just in time for the event. The team’s engineers spent the whole year working on the issue, as part of a dedicated battery department, whose results apparently wowed SpaceX engineers.
“They were very impressed by our battery system,” Heinen says. “A lot of teams have been using standard batteries, and we made a completely custom battery because we wanted to have as much energy concentrated within the weight.”
Although this is a competition, the teams are happy to work together. SpaceX lets team members onto the lot at 9 a.m. each day, closing down the lot at 5 p.m. That means time is of the essence.
“Every team’s asking questions to other teams, asking to borrow tools…but there is a little competition,” Hakker says. “We think it’s very important to stay really open to the other teams, to be really helpful, because we are all working on the same vision.”
Where next after the event? Delft has been working on a platform called Hyperloop Connect, which it will use to share blog posts and other information about its state of development. It wants to collaborate with other teams working on hyperloop. Alongside this platform, Delft has already devised a new team dedicated to the next competition.
As for when members of the public can ride the hyperloop, Delft estimates that it will be technically feasible in 10 years — but political and economic factors mean it will probably take longer than that.