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Virginia Students Design the Future of Travel

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Courtesy of VCU College of Engineering
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SpaceX is a company run by Elon Musk. It’s made headlines for revolutionizing space travel. But the company is also focused on travel right here on Earth, a high-speed futuristic train called the Hyperloop.

It doesn’t exist yet, but college students around the world have done their part to inch the Hyperloop closer to reality by taking part in an international design competition. And two of the twenty teams that are worldwide finalists are from Virginia.

Imagine boarding a train that travels through an airless tube. No air means no resistance. And that means high speed. You board in DC, and 30 minutes later - bam - New York City.

Patrick Welch doesn’t just have to imagine it. He gets to build it.

“The speed that they’re trying to get hyperloops up to is 700 miles an hour,” Welch says. “Over 700 miles an hour.”

Welch is a mechanical engineering student at Virginia Commonwealth University and a member of the Hyperloop team at VCU.

In a makerspace in downtown Richmond the team is designing a 6 foot prototype pod. It will be made of fiberglass, with an internal propulsion system fueled by battery.

Welch says the simplicity of the idea inspires him. And as an environmentalist, he’s motivated to do something that doesn’t cause more destruction to the world

“But puts us in a more forward direction,” Welch says.

Teams from VCU and Virginia Tech have already made it through two rounds of competition. Now they’re each one of twenty teams that have made it to the final stage. Only 11 of those are even from the U.S.

 

 

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Credit Courtesy of VCU College of Engineering
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Arthur Chadwick, President of the VCU Hyperloop Team, holds a small model of their pod.

Arthur Chadwick, President of the VCU Team and a junior in mechanical engineering, remembers getting the email saying they’d made it through.

“It was crazy. Starting from square one talking about a concept, ideating, designing and then creating a product,” Chadwick says. “It’s rewarding, very rewarding.”

Now  the VCU team is now sprinting towards the finish line. The design is done and now it is all about construction.

They’re working 15 hour days fueled by caffeine through an IV, they joke, and companionship. Less of a joke.

“You get really close to everyone when you realize that we have a clear vision for this project and you know all of us want to get there,” Chadwick says. “All of us have our different ways of getting there, but we’re ok with going any direction in order to get there.”

The team has been working together for almost a year, and includes designers, computer scientists, engineers, and business students. Their looming deadline is the final competition in California.  

To get there they need to finish construction and raise money. The project has been structured like a business. Harrison Powers, a junior in accounting, is in charge of fundraising.  

“We just need money to build the pod. It’s not technically a part of the competition. But at the same time it’s not going to be free,” Power explains. “We’ve got to pay for the metal, we’ve got to pay for parts that we can’t manufacture ourselves.”

The team unveils its pod later this month. Then it’s off to California where the fastest prototype will win the Hyperloop competition.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Harrison Powers was in charge of marketing and fundraising. He is  in charge of fundraising, but not marketing. 

 
This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.
 
 

Mallory Noe-Payne is Radio IQ's Richmond reporter and bureau chief. She's covered policy and politics from the state capital since 2016. She was a 2020-2021 recipient of the Fulbright Young Journalist Award. She spent a year in Munich, Germany researching memory, justice, and how a society can collectively confront its sins. Her Virginia-based coverage of home healthcare workers, voting rights, and Richmond’s Slave Trail have won national news awards.