In a cavernous concrete University City lab, about 80 Drexel University engineering students are working out the kinks on the future of public transportation.
They're building a working model of a hyperloop pod. Championed by inventor Elon Musk, the guy behind Tesla electric cars, the hyperloop would move pods full of passengers, powered either electrically or magnetically, through depressurized tubes at up to 750 mph. A hyperloop pod would make the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, for example, in about a half-hour between downtown stations. The hyperloop would offer the speed of planes and the convenience of trains.
The Drexel team is in an international contest to design the best pod, and less than two weeks ago its proposal made it through the first major elimination round. Drexel's is among 31 teams that will build a working pod to race.
"This is not something they hold every year, so we only get one shot at this," said Oliver Tillman, a 22-year-old senior from Towson, Md.
Musk's company SpaceX is hosting the competition, and in June Drexel's pod will race on a mile-long track next to the business' headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. Unlike the full-scale hyperloop, the competition models will travel only about 250 mph.
The company is not directly involved in building the first functioning hyperloop, but it is championing efforts to make the technology a reality. The results of the competition will be open-sourced, and elements from the student projects could be incorporated in the final design if the hyperloop becomes a reality.
"There are technical challenges that need to be solved, and who better to solve it than a bunch of really innovative and smart engineering students?" said Phil Larson, spokesman for SpaceX.
Along with bragging rights and a small cash prize for a people's choice selection, five to 10 teams may receive recognition from SpaceX for innovative features in design, safety, efficiency, and performance, according to the company's promotional materials.
The team's adviser, Drexel engineering professor Ajmal Yousuff, said the project was an opportunity for undergraduates to be challenged as they would be in engineering firms.
"If you go into industry, they do exactly the same thing," he said.
Design Weekend at Texas A&M University, when the team's plan ranked well enough among 123 other entries to move on to the next stage - construction - was like engineers' heaven, said Richard Crane, 23, of Litchfield, Conn., the Drexel team leader.
"We just kind of sat down and nerded out for a while with all the teams," he said.
Designing the pod has required the Drexel team, which began work in September, to answer tough questions.
How to move fast? How to be safe? How to slow down?
The group is going to line its pod with air bearings, which run pressurized air through a material that is porous on a microscopic level to create a cushion of air for the pod to float on. Think of an air hockey table as a comparison. To slow the pod, the team is installing flaps that will expand and slow the pod by building up pressure ahead of it, like the pressure ahead of a compressing syringe plunger.
"We certainly take inspiration from other things," said Cameron Staines, 22, of Villanova.
The tube the pod will travel will have a near-vacuum, so a crack in it could be fatal to passengers, team members said. They looked to Federal Aviation Administration standards to prepare for a breach that would blow the air out of the pod.
The team also needs money. It estimates that the vehicle, which will be three-fourths the size needed for an adult, will cost up to $70,000. The total cost of the project will be near $90,000. The team has support from area engineering or design firms such as New Way Air Bearings, Delphinus Engineering, and M2VP Inc., and is hosting a fund-raiser at Drexel's Bossone Building Thursday at 6 p.m. Details about Drexel's project can be found here. The team will build its pod in April and test it in May. Winning matters, team members said, but they say they are most excited about helping change how people travel.
"This is something that will change the world," Tillman said. "It's about time that the transportation industry is revolutionized."