CINCINNATI -- Imagine taking a new transit system from Cincinnati to Chicago and arriving in just 30 minutes.
That's the future an ambitious group of students and faculty members at the University of Cincinnati are working to make a reality.
The group, UC Hyperloop, revealed for the first time in public last month its design for a pod that would one day transport people and cargo at close to the speed of sound.
Last year, after putting together a team of students and scraping up some money from the engineering department, the group drove to Texas to enter its design into a competition sponsored by SpaceX to develop a Hyperloop system, a high-speed transportation of passengers and goods in partially evacuated tubes.
The UC team beat 1,200 teams from around the world that had submitted projects and earned one of 30 spots in the finals, along with teams from Purdue, Virginia Tech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The team will demonstrate its proof of concept this January at the next phase of the Hyperloop competition at a test track next to SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, to see if the UC model could one day be used as a new mass-transit system.
"When I tell other teams that we are from UC, they usually ask if we are from Berkeley or Irving in California. I say 'No, we are the UC!'" said operations leader Sid Thatham, who organized the team last year.
Hyperloop is the brainchild of SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who has challenged the world to come up with a design for a transit system that has a lot of criteria: It should be able to travel over 700 mph, use only renewable energy, and be safe and cost-effective.
The goal is to build a way to move people and things that is cleaner than automobiles, yet faster, cheaper and more reliable than airplanes, with an average one-way ticket price of around $27.
Musk's ambitious plan for the future has inspired the team.
"I really love his vision," Thatham said. "It's exciting to be part of something this cutting edge."
The conceptual Hyperloop uses a tube from which the air has been removed so that the pod can move quickly and without the resistance of friction, but this comes with many engineering challenges.
"One of the challenges was to design lightweight systems that operate in low-pressure environments," said team leader Dhaval Shiyani. "The lighter the system, the faster it will go. So we tried to shave off as much weight as we could from our design. This will help us achieve the 240-mph speeds for the competition."
Another critical component was getting the powerful magnets used in breaking and levitating the pod to function correctly, something the team had to study extensively.
The project has become a community collaboration.
Local businesses such as Tri-State Fabricators have offered assistance with materials, and students from UC's Department of Architecture, Art and Planning have worked to design the pod's interior and rider experience.
Even the Dean of Engineering at UC, Dr. Tiek Lim, has put his own research on hold so the team can work on the pod in his lab.
"We have lots of people working on this project who don't get a lot of sleep," Thatham said. "People are putting a lot of time and energy into UC Hyperloop on top of taking classes and working."
Robert Richardson, chairman of UC's Board of Trustees, and a supporter of the team, is excited to see the progress that has been made.
"Innovation is happening here," Richardson said. "You don't have to go far to find cutting-edge research and collaboration. It's right here in Cincinnati."
Chris Anderson is a local science educator, aspiring science communicator, and founder of the blog scienceovereverything.com.