Speeding out of lockdown
The transport of the future will not be by plane, train, or automobile, but in superfast pods shooting through vacuum tubes. This is the vision behind the Hyperloop project. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, launched the competition in 2017, inviting teams of students from across the globe to race against each other with their prototype capsules or “pods” on a test track in Los Angeles.
Swissloop – a team comprising students from ETH Zürich and other Swiss universities – have competed in the race from the very beginning, developing a new model every year. The team has already finished twice in the top three.
Incredibly compact …
Swissloop unveiled its newest transport pod yesterday. They christened it “Simona de Silvestro” in memory of the successful Swiss racing driver. Measuring 2.05 metres, the new pod is much shorter than its predecessor, its chassis is made of aluminium rather than carbon, and it’s powered by a much smaller battery and motor.
Given its smaller dimensions, Michael Rogenmoser, a master’s student, likes to call it the “baby pod”. Rogenmoser is head of the Swissloop electronics team. The new model was not originally planned as a “baby”, but was the fortuitous product of special circumstances: initially there were already signs at the end of 2019 that SpaceX might be about to cancel the competition in 2020, but then came the pandemic.
Priorities suddenly changed: without the pressure of the competition, it was no longer simply a matter of “speed at all costs”. Instead, Swissloop decided to concentrate on the weaknesses of last year’s model and radically improve all the key components.
The technical design of the new pod was already in place in the spring. But suddenly the Swissloop team had a lot more time to perform simulations and tests. Rogenmoser explains: “We wanted to deepen our understanding of the components we are developing.” A smaller and cheaper prototype was perfectly adequate for this purpose.
Swissloop has improved the interoperability of all the components in the pod, as well as reducing the weight and saving more space. But most of the attention was focused on the linear motor. This core component was used for the first time in last year’s pod, called “Claude Nicollier”, and helped to propel the team into second place.
But there is still much room for improvement, explains Rogenmoser. Take acceleration, for example: “The faster the linear motor moves, the more difficult it becomes to accelerate. Last year the pod reached its limits here”.
In order to better understand and control the forces in the linear motor, the students had to redesign the motor controller (“inverter”) from scratch. They are now able to control the motor with much more precision and also measure more accurately the effects of the modified settings. Rogenmoser comments: “This year we’ve created a blueprint in which we really can fine-tune every single component”.
At the forefront of research
The team’s ambition is not only to win future competitions, but also to be at the forefront of research. The pod’s linear motor really is ground-breaking technology, Rogenmoser stresses: “We are one of the few groups worldwide capable of achieving such high speeds with this size of linear motor”.
The discoveries made while developing the Swissloop motor are therefore a potentially valuable source of scientific knowledge as well. This has prompted Swissloop to organise a series of online seminars where researchers engaged in Hyperloop technologies can share their know-how with interested students from across the globe.
Even if there are no competitions in California, the ETH students working on Swissloop are keen to contribute to the Hyperloop vision. This year they have been able to develop their pod as part of the focus projects at the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering. At some point, however, there has to be another competition. And then the “baby pod” will evolve into an even better, faster and more stable transport pod.