What gave you the idea to participate in the competition?
Thomas Ruck: I remember three of us were sitting in a cafe last year in late July and thinking about how we could make the whole thing work. Mariana Avezum, a student in the Department of Informatics, had seen on Facebook that there was a competition being held by SpaceX focusing on building a Hyperloop Pod. She was immediately very excited about the idea and looked for some people at the Department of Mechanical Engineering who might be interested in joining her to give it a try. I was one of the first people to agree. Since then the team has grown to 35 members and now we're flying to Los Angeles next week, where the competition finals will take place in three weeks.
Did you expect to make it all the way to the finals?
Thomas Ruck: In the beginning we were one of 700 teams that had submitted designs. There were entries from all the leading universities in the world. We were confident that we'd be able to come up with a good design, but we really didn't think things would work out this well. In the Design competition last year in Texas we made it into the top 20. That was when we realized that we'd actually have to build our Pod. We started organizing sponsors, and we realized we were going to need quite a few more people - at the time our team consisted of only about 15 students. We invested a lot of time in obtaining the necessary financing, materials and expertise. Then we finally got started with the actual construction activities in April. We had finished most of the work by October, when we started with the fine-tuning.
And what have you been doing to prepare for the competition?
Thomas Ruck: In early December we started the packaging and transport process. This included cataloging every individual part we want to take with us and registering them all with customs. It turned out to be a total of 19,000 individual parts with a total weight of 1.2 tons. And here the Pod was counted as just one part. The Pod arrived in the workshop in Los Angeles on January 6. When we arrive in Los Angeles next Monday, on January 16, we'll start the final system integration in which we install the final parts on the Pod, for example the magnets and the batteries. We sent these parts separately by ship, since transporting them by plane is prohibited. Then on January 22 we'll move to SpaceX, where the test campaign starts: Here we have to prove that we've built everything in compliance with the rules, and more than anything that our Pod is safe and that it won't damage the tubes or the starter vehicle in the tube. There's a 17-page-long checklist we have to work through. The competition itself starts on January 27 and will last for three days, so that the final results will be in on January 29. Two winners will be chosen: the team with the fastest Pod and the winner in the area of technology.
The special thing about your concept is the compressor. Why is that so important?
Thomas Ruck: At high speeds in a tube which has been built to be as economically feasible as possible, i.e. with the smallest possible diameter, you simply need a compressor. It prevents the Pod from pushing an air column in front of it that ultimately slows it down. The compressor takes in the air, compresses it and then shoots it out the back of the vehicle. In technical terms this is a fairly complicated task, since it requires very high revolutions per minute. Our compressor runs at 17,000 RPM; the first job is to find an electric motor which can handle that at all. In the competition itself we won't be moving at speeds close to the speed of sound. The tube is only one mile long, so we'll only be able to move at about 350 kilometers per hour. And the slower we move, the less important the compressor becomes, which is why the other teams have omitted it. But as a team we've always focused on the overall concept of a large-scale Hyperloop system and not just on winning the competition. We're very proud of the fact that we've been able to realize the concept and have even completed successful testing.
How important is winning the competition to you? And what is the prize?
Thomas Ruck: We've invested an enormous amount of time in the project; I myself have been working on the project full-time for over a year now. Doing that just to win would be ridiculous. We expect to have pretty a good chance, since we have a technically good and sound concept. Of course, we don't know what the other teams have done, but that's what makes a competition like this so exciting. And we also don't know what the prize will turn out to be. SpaceX has said it will be the "most awesome prize ever"… We'll just wait and see. We won't know if we'll win the prize until the finals are over in three weeks.