by Crystal Wong
In August 2017, on a warm, sunny day, a team of 15 engineers anxiously watched as they launched their version of a Hyperloop pod, a new concept of transportation, through a vacuum chamber test. That day, HyperXite, UC Irvine’s Hyperloop team, placed second for air levitation in SpaceX’s Hyperloop Competition. Although it wasn’t a complete first place win in the competition, HyperXite considered the entire experience a win.
HyperXite was founded back in 2015 at UC Irvine by Patricio Guerrero and originally started as a small engineering senior research project that aimed to compete in the first SpaceX Hyperloop competition, a university-level engineering competition designed to create models for hyper-fast travel. Now, HyperXite is a student-run organization that opens applications to all interested undergraduate students.
Mazen Alkhatib, the assistant project manager of HyperXite, is currently working with a team of 42 members to build a brand-new pod for an upcoming SpaceX Hyperloop competition in 2018.
Originally proposed back in 2013 by SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, Hyperloop is a concept introduced to produce a new form of faster transportation that can go from Point A to Point B in a matter of minutes. For now, the concept focuses solely on getting from Los Angeles to San Francisco within 30 minutes — a total speed of 760 miles per hour. However, because it is a developing concept, it won’t be much longer until the pod can actually travel to further places.
This is where SpaceX’s Hyperloop competition comes into play. The competition allows aspiring engineers to design a Hyperloop Pod from scratch and propose their design to SpaceX engineers under the supervision of Elon Musk. The competition serves as a learning experience for both student engineers and current engineers hoping to change the face of transportation.
“It’s a new idea, new concept, so we’re learning along with SpaceX,” said Alkhatib.
In HyperXite’s first competition in January 2017, the team placed fifth in the overall design category among 100 teams that competed, and they were the only team in the top five to use air levitation – their prized strategy.
While other teams used active or passive magnetic levitation, HyperXite focused on using air levitation instead. Because magnetic levitation was proven to work, teams that competed used this strategy as a default method in levitating their pods. HyperXite decided to take an alternative route by using air levitation instead as it has a lot more benefits than magnetic levitation in terms of expenses and maintenance. Air levitation can also pull higher speeds while magnetic levitation has a chance of slowing down the pod (when there is a strong magnetic field around a conductor at high speeds of motion, it can cause a drag force that slows down the pod).
With an interest in challenging themselves, HyperXite’s choice in choosing air levitation proved successful. A simpler way to describe how air levitation works is to imagine it as an upside-down air hockey table.
“We push air below our skis and create a thin film of air below the skis, making our pod frictionless and faster,” said Allen Chang, the levitation lead.
Chang’s role on the team was to research, design, and fabricate levitation skis that were able to lift up to 1000 pounds, and his role was significant in allowing them to place fifth.
“I felt very excited to show SpaceX and the world the hard work that we have been working on,” said Chang.
In the second competition HyperXite competed in just recently, in August 2017, the team placed second for air levitation and was the highest ranked All-American team.
“Competition week at SpaceX was the most amazing experience in my life,” said Jason Lee, the simulation lead. “It was interesting seeing other teams’ pods because each pod looked and functioned differently.”
Throughout competition week, HyperXite thought of the competition as more than just that – to them, it was also a learning and eye-opening experience that showed them a glimpse of what the aerospace industry contained.
“Even though the competition was very tense and stressful, I always looked forward to the daily team dinners when the day was over,” said Lee. “Working alongside friends made the whole experience much more memorable.”
HyperXite is currently in the design phase of building a brand-new pod for SpaceX’s third competition this upcoming summer. While the team is looking for a win this time around, what they’re most interested in is the experience that comes with building a Hyperloop Pod.
“It’s not just a research project; it’s a real life experience,” said Alkhatib.