Meet the bright Irish spark behind MIT’s Hyperloop test pod

13 Dec 2016

MIT’s Colm O’Rourke speaking about his role as the electronics lead of the Hyperloop team. Image: Colm O’Rourke

Irishman Colm O’Rourke is gearing up for next month’s SpaceX Hyperloop competition, where he plays an integral part in the MIT team that could define where the technology goes from here.

It feels like a number of years since SpaceX founder Elon Musk proposed the concept of the Hyperloop, probably because it actually was years ago and not much has changed since.

On paper, the concept seemed simple: design a train that would travel through a vacuum at unparalleled speeds, ushering in an era of transport that could take us between cities in minutes rather than hours.

Transport of the future

When Musk proposed the concept in 2012, the real world’s Tony Stark admitted that he was simply too busy to try to undertake such an engineering challenge – given that he was focused on trying to get humans to Mars – but would help in any way he could.

Nearly five years later, that effort will culminate with the SpaceX Hyperloop pod competition in January, which will see a number of different research teams test their Hyperloop pod designs on a close-to-scale track.

While companies like Hyperloop One have already begun boasting about their own concepts and even the building of small-scale test tracks, SpaceX’s competition is squarely aimed at bringing university students and independent engineering teams into the fray.

As you can imagine, one thing that researchers don’t have is deep pockets, which are needed to develop test tracks that could carry a full-scale replica of a pod. This is where SpaceX’s sizeable budget comes in.

One such team hoping to win over the SpaceX judges comes from none other than MIT in the US, where amongst some of the leading engineers and researchers in the world is Offaly native Colm O’Rourke who heads a group of four as the pod’s electronic lead.

Colm O’Rourke.

O’Rourke soldering electronics for the pod. Image: Colm O’Rourke

As an electrical engineering PhD student in the Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems at the prestigious university, O’Rourke felt compelled to apply based on the fact that the Hyperloop concept seemed like a fun, new project to work on.

“That’s why I wanted to become an engineer,” he added, in conversation with, “to build cool things”.

But while the Hyperloop is definitely within the category of cool, actually formulating a design concept has proven challenging.

MIT pod

The design of the MIT pod. Image: MIT

Maglev is the way to go

While Musk’s proposed design suggested the pod – that could contain passengers or cargo – would be on a rail system, the MIT quickly realised that this was not an ideal solution.

“We just found that it was just really infeasible for us to choose [Musk’s design],” he said.

“With a millimetre gap between the pod and the track, a millimetre bump would be enough to crash into whatever that bump was. If you want to go higher, you’d need to have to pump more air with a compressed tank on board your pod to achieve these heights [in a vacuum].

“Then you’re constantly adding air to this low pressure tube. The whole idea of the low pressure tube is to go really fast, and if you’re constantly pumping out air to overcome these bumps, it just wouldn’t really work.”

The solution, rather, is the team’s own magnetic levitation (maglev) design that would be not only more efficient, but safer too.

MIT’s Hyperloop test track in action. Images: MIT

Testing times

While O’Rourke and the rest of the team had the dimensions to work with the SpaceX track, testing would obviously need to be done in the meantime, and what better place than the halls of MIT itself?

“Our rig is based on a 75ft long aluminium I-beam we put in the tunnels of MIT. We somehow got permission to get access to these tunnels where sometimes students are walking to class,” he admitted.

In such a confined space, some changes had to be made to the design; with MIT running the maths to test its levitation systems at speeds of 24kph, rather than at a more real-life scenario of around 160kph.

“The results from these [tests] came within 5pc of our predictions, which we were really happy about.”

I’m not the passenger, but I ride and I ride

One other noticeable difference between the original Hyperloop train idea proposed by Musk and the MIT design was the removal of passengers from the equation.

After some brainstorming about the feasibility of carrying human cargo on their pod, some realities began to sink in for the MIT team.

“[Passengers] are important, but we couldn’t tackle everything,” O’Rourke said. “We also felt that it had been solved by the airline industry, as they have a pressurised cabin.

“We just felt that we wanted to focus on what we thought were the interesting and scalable technologies very well.”

Scalability is something that has challenged the two existing companies that have been spawned from the Hyperloop concept: Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.

Having been shown to be fierce competitors for a number of reasons, both companies have already begun making deals with nation states about possibly bringing a Hyperloop train to their cities.

However, sceptics have questioned whether these small companies have the resources to achieve such a feat.

MIT team

The MIT Hyperloop team. Image: MIT

A pipe dream come true

When it comes to his own thoughts, O’Rourke errs on the side of caution when predicting whether a full-scale Hyperloop system will be the transport of the future, making a reasonable comparison with the now discontinued Concorde supersonic airliner.

“That was an amazingly fast aircraft and you didn’t have to build anything but a runway, and yet we don’t have Concordes flying anymore,” he said.

O’Rourke admits that “it’s been a pretty hectic year” in terms of putting the final pod together, but when it takes to the track next January, he and the MIT team can hopefully celebrate a pipe (or vacuum tube) dream come true.

Since speaking to O’Rourke, he let me know that he has since agreed to join another Elon Musk project; this time with Tesla, where he will be working with the energy products team for the duration of summer 2017.

“I applied for Tesla for much the same reason I chose to do the Hyperloop competition; to have the chance to build something cool,” he said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic