Hyperloop

Although electricity generation is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emission, transportation follows closely behind.1 Currently, many of the technologies our society has developed rely on energy harnessed from the combustion of fossil fuels. Therefore, combatting climate change not only will require shifting energy production to renewables, but also transitioning the systems that primarily use fossil fuels to ones that can be powered by renewables. For example, 92% of the energy consumed in the transportation sector comes from petroleum-based fuels alone.

Hyperloop is an electric mode of transportation popularized by Elon Musk in 2012 after the release of a white paper, where a magnetically levitated pod in propelled through a low-pressure tube to reduce energy lost through friction and air resistance. In the original white paper, SpaceX and Tesla engineers predicted it will require the lowest amount of energy per passenger out of any mode of transportation.

Once SpaceX announced that they would organize a global Hyperloop competition and would provide the first test tube track at their headquarters in Hawthorne, I quickly joined the inaugural UW Hyperloop team.

I was part of a collaborative team of chemists, physicists, chemical engineers, and electrical engineers that formed the power storage and distribution team. I specifically was involved with designing and implementing the lithium ion battery array that powered the electric motors driving the Halbach arrays designated for levitation. One of the research obstacles we had to address was thermally managing the heat dissipated by the lithium batteries and motors. Traditionally, convection is efficient method of heat transfer under normal operating conditions, but is inefficient in low pressure operating conditions. Using a set of partial differential equations, I numerically simulated heat transfer in the battery array based on each cell’s nominal efficiency. I co-led the group to implementing a passive thermal management system based on phase change materials, where we were able to greatly reduce the operating temperature of the pod as a significant amount of energy is stored in the heat of entropy through the material’s phase transition rather than in heat capacity. I led the collaboration with a business called AllCell to customize phase change materials composed of a phase change composite and graphite for our specific application.

Our 52 member team has been lucky in that the Pacific Northwest community has been supporting us since the beginning, we have now secured over $200,000 in sponsorships and work with several local companies for manufacturing parts. KOMO news highlighted our team after the SpaceX demonstration weekend in Texas this past January, we won 1st place in the safety subsystem and were within the top 5% out of the ~200 teams competing and were selected to manufacture a prototype pod which we tested on the SpaceX track in Hawthorne, CA and placed 4th out of all the US teams and of the 1,200 initial submissions.

1. Environmental Protection Agency. Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emission and Sinks: 1990-2012, Table ES-7, 2014.