Trending: ‘Our biggest competitor is paper’: Mapping startup Unearth lands $7M from Vulcan and Madrona
A cutaway shows Hyperloop Transportaion’s concept for a passenger pod supported by passive magnetic levitation. (Credit: Hyperloop Trans)

This is a big week for the Hyperloop, a high-speed transportation concept that was laid out three years ago by Elon Musk, the tech mastermind behind SpaceX and Tesla: One California-based startup is talking about the magnetic levitation system it plans to use for its prototype, while another will be showing off its test track in North Las Vegas.

Neither company is associated with Musk, but both are hoping to capitalize on his concept. If such systems are built, passengers will be able to board levitating pods and zoom through tubes from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles in about a half an hour, at nearly supersonic speeds. The cost of building such systems is expected to amount to billions of dollars. That suggests only one company will win out.

Today, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies announced that it was licensing a system known as passive magnetic levitation or Inductrack to get its pods off the ground. The system was developed by the late Richard Post and fellow researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Labs.

The Inductrack system relies on unpowered loops of wire and permanent magnets, rather than the traditional, more complex superconducting system. As linear induction motors propel the pod forward, the induced current creates a magnetic field that results in repulsion between the wire loops in the track and the array of magnets in the pod. That will keep the pod’s drive system from touching the track, thus reducing friction and easing acceleration.

“Utilizing a passive levitation system will eliminate the need for power stations along the Hyperloop track, which makes this system the most suitable for the application and will keep construction costs low,” Bibop Gresta, Hyperloop Transportation’s chief operating officer, said in a news release. “From a safety aspect, the system has huge advantages, levitation occurs purely through movement, therefore if any type of power failure occurs, Hyperloop pods would continue to levitate and only after reaching minimal speeds touch the ground.”

In January, Hyperloop Trans laid out plans to build a full-scale demonstration track in Quay Valley, Calif., “In 36 months we will have the first passenger in the first full-scale hyperloop,” Gresta said at the time.

Meanwhile, the company’s main commercial rival, Hyperloop Technologies, is promising a sneak peek at its scaled-down test track at Apex Industrial Park in North Las Vegas. The company will also show off some full-scale components. There’ll be live tweets from the festivities, starting Tuesday.

Musk’s team is working on yet another test track near SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., in preparation for the finals of a nationwide Hyperloop pod competition. Los Angeles-based AECOM is in charge of building the non-magnetic, subscale proving ground.

The University of Washington’s student-led Hyperloop team is among more than 20 finalists expected to compete in the SpaceX Hyperloop finals this summer.

Musk has said he’s too busy with SpaceX and Tesla to think about commercializing the Hyperloop concept himself. But that may change eventually. “It’s possible we would back a team, but we’re trying not to favor one organization over another,” he said back in January. “We’re trying to be as neutral as possible, and just generally trying to be helpful.”

If either Hyperloop Trans or Hyperloop Tech were to win Musk’s backing at some point, that just might mark the decisive turn in the commercial race to turn his rapid-transit dream into reality. Stay tuned. …

Subscribe to GeekWire's Space & Science weekly newsletter


Job Listings on GeekWork

Application SpecialistCity of Missoula
Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.