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Drexel Students Vie To Design Transportation Of The Future

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Imagine traveling hundreds of miles in a fraction of the time and money it takes to get from here to there by plane or train. That's the idea behind Hyperloop, in which you're whisked between cities in a low-pressure tube. A team from Drexel University is bringing their design of part of that system to Texas later this month for a SpaceX-sponsored competition.

The 80-some students are designing the pod in which you'll ride in comfort as the world whizzes by.

It looks like a white football someone's stepped on and stretched lengthwise, but this concept could become the capsule in which cargo and passengers are propelled faster than 700 miles an hour.

"We're one of the teams building a full pod," says Freddy Wachter, a pre-junior mechanical engineering major. "That includes everything from lifting it, moving it forward, making sure it stops, and all the safety measures that go along with that."

In the time it takes to watch a sitcom, you could get from Washington, DC to Boston. So how does it work?

"Air hockey is a similar concept," says Oliver Tillman.

The mechanical engineering student says the people- and cargo-carrying capsules the Drexel team is designing use air bearings.

"We will channel high-pressure air into an assembly with a graphite media," he says. "The air will force its way through the naturally imperfect graphite and create a sort-of air layer underneath the bearings, allowing the pod to ride on this air layer."

Instead of on wheels or by magnetic levitation (which some other teams might be employing).

Inside their workspace in University City, Tillman and Richard Crane, a senior mechanical engineering student, demonstrate the idea on a smaller scale by attaching a compressor-fed air hose to the back of a graphite plate about the size of a Hershey bar.

"The layer of air under the pod significantly reduces the amount of friction that the pod experiences," Tillman says.

The graphite air bearing moves along the aluminum track easier than a stick of butter on a frying pan, regardless of the applied force.

"The pod is riding on five microns of air," Crane explains. "At the forefront of our design, we have a compressor system that takes in the air and supplies it to our bearings which will be along the base of the pod. That will create the frictionless environment for it to travel at high speeds and not lose efficiency."

hyperloop air bearings
Hyperloop air bearing (photo credit Ian Bush)

Hyperloop comes from the mind of the man who brought us Tesla and SpaceX. Elon Musk (who says SpaceX is not developing a commercial Hyperloop) argues this "Fifth Mode of Transportation" would be a fraction of the cost of building a high-speed rail network.

"We already have the infrastructure for it, since it's a raised design," explains Wachter, the student team leader. "For instance, if you have wide highways, you could take out maybe the two center lanes and put the Hyperloop system right there. The only problem you're dealing with is radius of curvature. These pods are meant to be going straight, more or less -- if you're going around turns, you're going have to slow down, and that loses efficiency -- so you might have to make your own paths for certain cases."

That trip from DC to Boston I mentioned earlier? Wachter says it would cost about $30.

While we look forward to a Philly-to-New York trip that takes mere minutes and costs a few bucks, the Drexel team has their sights set on something that'll happen much sooner: the opening of a test track this summer.

But before that, they'll go up against students from the University of Pennsylvania and more than 100 other schools at the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition and design weekend at Texas A&M starting Jan. 29.

hyperloop pod in hands
Hyperloop pod (photo credit Ian Bush)

Drexel's team is hoping for corporate and other donors to back their idea.

"This isn't just some far-fetched idea, this isn't some dream," Tillman says. "It's really happening, and we have the chance to kind of shape how it turns out, which is exciting."

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