The MIT Hyperloop Team.

A couple of years ago, Elon Musk threw out the idea of Hyperloop, the super high-speed train that could solve all of our transportation woes. Although neither the entrepreneur nor his company SpaceX are personally pursuing the construction of such an infrastructure, they are encouraging others to go for it with their official Hyperloop Pod Competition.

I know what you’re thinking: This is right up MIT’s alley.

And you would be correct. The team from MIT – along with the hundreds of other groups participating in the competition – has submitted its final design proposal for Hyperloop and are set to present it at Design Weekend on January 29 and 30 down in Texas.

Update: The MIT team has won the competition in Dallas.

So what did MIT come up with for the challenge? I touched base with John Mayo and Chuan Zhang, the MIT team’s project manager and business co-lead, to get the details on the design they submitted for Hyperloop.

As expected, it’s pretty freaking audacious

How MIT imagines speed

According to Hyperloop’s Twitter page, MIT is among 318 teams from around the world participating in the challenge. But both Mayo and Chuan aren’t nervous about going up against that many groups. They were quite confident that their design will get them to the next round of the competition this summer, in which they’d be building their prototype to run on the mile-long test track SpaceX is constructing next to its headquarters in California.

“As far as the mechanics for Hyperloop go, our main focus was levitation,” Mayo told me. “At such high speeds, wheels don’t work that well and they don’t last, so we chose to use levitation.”

Levitation kind of sounds like magic. In this case, though, the MIT team will be using magnets to levitate their Hyperloop pod. The carefully placed series of magnets will be responsible for making the pod zoom down the track in about 15 seconds and allowing it to successfully brake at the end.

When it comes to aerodynamics, though, the MIT crew has taken a softer approach; it obviously played a role in their design, but it wasn’t as high as a priority as making the levitation solid.

“Aerodynamics at lower speeds are more forgiving,” Mayo explained.

A rendering of MIT’s proposed Hyperloop pod.

By lower speed, Mayo means 240 miles per hour, which is the goal for this competition. The challenge, because it’s to be completed in a year, is a dialed-down version of Hyperloop’s long-term vision of travel at 700 miles per hour. At that speed, people will have to get more serious about aerodynamics, as drag will become a big issue.

What do these MIT grad students expect to see from their adversaries on Design Weekend? More levitation – except different from theirs.

“Levitation can also be done with air bearings, like you would see in an air hockey table,” Mayo said. “It was what Elon Musk originally proposed, so we’re expecting to see a lot of those designs.

“The problem with air bearings, though, is that the surface has to be incredibly smooth and clean, which is extremely challenging for long distances,” he continued.

There will also be some pods with wheels that focused more on aerodynamics to make for a speedy design. Regardless of the other approaches, MIT maintains its design will rise to the top.

Next steps for the team (fingers crossed)

After the MIT team is hopefully selected to move forward, it’ll be time to buckle down – and not just on the building side. Zhang, an MBA candidate at Sloan, explained that they’ll have to raise more money to build this new infrastructure.

“I’ve been able to see what it’s like to commercialize new technology,” Zhang expressed. He’s helped lead the team in terms of fundraising, marketing and promoting their design. He added, “It’s just like how tech in the real world works.”

“A competition like Hyperloop promotes engineering and in a more cooperative context” Mayo stated. “We’ve been learning so much because it’s a larger scope than class projects we’ve done.”

“It’s been a project that’s in line with MIT’s motto: Mind and Hand,” Zhang concluded.

Images via MIT Hyperloop Team.