Texas considered for Hyperloop route as Austin team wins SpaceX innovation award

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin to Dallas in just 20 minutes — sounds like a dream, right?

It’s a fantasy for now, but this week the company Hyperloop One announced a route in Texas is one of 10 being considering for the ultra-high-speed transportation system the business wants to build somewhere.

The news is invigorating for groups here in Central Texas working on Hyperloop technologies themselves, two of which are tied to the University of Texas at Austin.

“If you’re living in Austin and you want to go work in Dallas, that’s a really difficult thing to do today,” Ben James explained, “but with the Hyperloop, that commute could be 20, 25 minutes.”

James, who works days as a product manager at Austin-based vacation rental company HomeAway, is an electrical engineer with the group Texas Guadaloop. The team has been designing and building Hyperloop concepts for two years in Austin.

The Hyperloop concept, first introduced by SpaceX founder Elon Musk several years ago, uses low-pressure and levitating pods to transport people at hundreds of miles per hour. Several companies and research groups are testing designs and plans, but no full-scale project has taken hold.

The Texas route that Hyperloop One is considering would link Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Laredo, making travel between any of those a breeze. For researchers and engineers working on the Texas Guadaloop project, it’s another step in the right direction.

“It’s just like an air hockey table,” Ben James explained. He was holding a large, round disc, one side of which is made of an inflatable rubber. A pneumatic system runs pressurized gases through the bearings, creating a thin film of air underneath.

Four of the bearings are enough to levitate the 1,200-pound aluminum-framed pod the Guadaloop team built.

“To watch it work and levitate and all the systems function properly,” James said, “it’s just a very rewarding experience.”

James was among a few team members who unloaded the pod Saturday at UT’s J.J. Pickle Research Campus, where the group has a short test track set up. It consists of a simple T-shaped rail for the pod to follow as they test how well it moves under various circumstances.

The device on display this weekend was one the team built for the second SpaceX Hyperloop competition in California at the end of last month. Texas Guadaloop brought home an innovation award for the design.

Once the 1,200-pound pod levitates, James explained, friction is reduced significantly, and in a low-pressure tube, the contraption would be easier to move than a shopping cart of office chair. And once it starts moving, the science suggests, it could keep going at high rates of speed with little effort.

“Definitely a lot of hours went into this,” Patryk Radyjowski, Texas Guadaloop’s lead designer, said at the test track. “This is just breaking the status quo.”

The current design — the third full concept the team tried out — was a couple years in the making. It’s scaled down to half or one-third of the size the pod would need to be to transport people comfortably, and Radyjowski said the design they have now would be easily scalable to full size.

“Without changing the air tanks or any of our levitation system, we can build it, like, three, four times bigger, three, four times heavier, and actually it’s going to perform even better,” he said. “I don’t know what the future is going to bring, and I’m open to making it as big as possible.”

Eventually, James said, the team could find capital and build out a company of their own to produce pods for use in Hyperloop systems; another option would be to produce the technology that others could use.

“The purpose of Texas Guadaloop is to advance the technology of Hyperloop and to make that available to the world,” he said. But for now the team is focused on taking it one step at a time.

“SpaceX has announced a new competition [in 2018] that we’re hoping to get into,” James said. “And if we get accepted, we’ll have a new design to go compete with.”

Texas Guadaloop is one of two UT-affiliated groups that competed in the August SpaceX Hyperloop competition; 512 Hyperloop was there as well. A German student team won first prize at the competition for reaching 201 miles per hour in a test of their magnetic levitation pod.

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