U of Waterloo students hoping to win big in high-stakes Hyperloop competition

A group of students in Waterloo, Ont., are hoping a high-speed travel pod they've built using a combination of aluminum and high-end plastic will prove a winner in an upcoming competition hosted by SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

'You could think about it like a train because it runs on a track but with speeds closer to an airplane'

Team member Montgomery de Luna is helping to design interior and exterior features. Work on the Waterloop prototype started in September 2015. (Amanda Margison/CBC)

Students at the University of Waterloo hope their design has what it takes in the race to build a passenger pod that can go between Ontario and British Columbia in three short hours.  

The 120-person team, made up of primarily of undergraduates, is the only Canadian group that made the semi-final cut in an international competition aimed at accelerating the pace of Hyperloop technology.

Organized by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, the contest's aim is to develop a passenger module that could travel in a pneumatic tube at speeds as high as 1,200 km/hr. 

Montgomery de Luna, a team lead on the aptly named Waterloop project, laughs when he says: "How would I describe this to my grandmother?" 

The 24-year-old, who is also working on his master's degree in architecture, spearheaded the University of Waterloo's application to the SpaceX contest.

"You could think about it like a train because it runs on a track but with speeds closer to an airplane than a train," he says. 

"The thing is, it also levitates."  

That's right. The pod floats. 

The team has successfully raised the Waterloop five millimetres off the ground, despite the pod currently weighing roughly 225 kilograms.

"There is almost no friction when it levitates," de Luna explains, pointing to wheels that will lift off a track when operational.

"Once you accelerate, since we'll be in a vacuum [tube], there's nothing slowing you down." 

Students have already successfully levitated the legs off the floor. (Amanda Margison/CBC)
The plastic component seen here was created using a 3D printer. (Amanda Margison/CBC)

Levitation was not possible the day CBC visited the workshop, as it requires hours of preparation, impossible on a school day when most of the team members had class. 

Building the Waterloop        

The students are building the pod using a combination of aluminum and high-end plastic, some of it made using 3D printers and shaped with laser cutters. 

The Waterloop team is betting these simple assembly methods, as well as the use of low-cost components, some purchased at the local hardware store, will give them an advantage over other semi-finalists vying to create the top design.    

Students are preparing for the next phase of the competition, a test drive in California. (Amanda Margison/CBC)

When it comes to braking, a major safety concern for a vehicle moving at almost the speed of sound, the students say they looked to roller coasters for inspiration.

"At high speeds, you can't really use friction brakes because the pads will wear out and it will create a lot of heat," says student Hernando Castano, who is helping build the Waterloop's brakes.  

"Instead we're using earth magnets set beside aluminum wheels." 

The students are an interdisciplinary group, studying everything from architecture to physics to nanotechnology, and say that has helped them anticipate problems and find solutions.

"There is no guidebook for Hyperloop technology," de Luna says.

Test ride ahead

In preparation for the next deadline in the competition, the Waterloop team will soon move the prototype pod to a larger warehouse on campus where they'll begin testing on a track. 

The plan is to have the pod ready to go 500 km/hr inside an eight kilometre-long vacuum tube currently under construction in the California desert at the SpaceX site. 

The high-speed, high-stakes test drive will see the Waterloop team and 22 others present their prototypes to Musk and other judges in January.

If it goes well, the Canadian team will be selected to continue development for one final test run that summer.

"The goal is to change the transportation industry," de Luna says, showing off designs he made of the pod's interior.

"At this point, we have come to believe that anything is possible."

The students have raised $28,000 to help build the prototype. They are hoping to raise $40,000.


  • An earlier version of this story did not capitalize Hyperloop, but it is a trademarked name and the story has updated to reflect this.
    Nov 04, 2016 10:41 AM ET