This map shows the location of the Virgin Hyperloop Certification Center in northeastern West Virginia.

WVU’s unique blend of engineering expertise helps secure Virgin Hyperloop Certification Center in West Virginia

(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories outlining contributions from the John Chambers College of Business and Economics, Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute and others at WVU in this project.)

A unique blend of expertise in multiple areas of engineering at West Virginia University, and a shared purpose have culminated in an integrated solution to meet the unique challenges of the Virgin Hyperloop Certification Center, slated to be located in the West Virginia highlands.

“Our College has all of the capabilities and expertise needed to design, build and test the Hyperloop Certification Center,” said Pedro Mago, Glen H. Hiner Dean of the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources. “There are a lot of elements that we can bring to the table, and our faculty and researchers can play a critical role in this complex and exciting project. We are well positioned to provide integrated solutions that will have a significant impact on this project.”

Manufacturing centers already established to begin production

A specific requirement for the certification center was a six-mile span of minimally technical terrain boasting slight curvature, contours and varied soil condition for the test track to be built on.

WVU has conducted extensive research and testing on the integration of high strength polymer composites into highways, bridges, buildings, pipelines, flood control systems and utilities through its Center for Integration of Composites into Infrastructure, led by Hota GangaRao. The development of the polymer composites led to a Delmonte Award for Excellence for the system’s ability to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and other large blasts. GangaRao said these research developments will be integral in extending the life, safety and durability of the Virgin Hyperloop system.

GangaRao, Maurice A. and JoAnn Wadsworth Distinguished Professor of the Wadsworth Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Constructed Facilities Center, and other researchers, all of whom have broad experience building large-scale structures in West Virginia’s mountainous terrain, proved to be a crucial competitive edge in Virgin Hyperloop’s decision.

“With industry help, we cannot only make the pod and tube today, but also design for various novel features that reduce the initial cost and enhance service life to 150 years,” GangaRao said.

Over three decades of experience in composite material design have established GangaRao’s research team as world leaders in the field. Their research success has translated into safer national infrastructure and led to partnerships with a number of state and federal agencies, including the West Virginia Department of Transportation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the United States Department of Energy.

Statler’s research expertise meets Virgin Hyperloop needs

To launch Virgin Hyperloop from a technological innovation to a full-scale transportation system involves many areas of engineering and science, including the physics of propulsion and levitation, sensor networks, artificial intelligence, sustainable transportation systems, rare earth elements and other emerging areas.

Earl Scime, Oleg D. Jefimenko Professor of Physics and Astronomy and former interim dean of the Statler College, brought to the table the full spectrum of engineers and resources in the College, as well as bringing his personal expertise in the initial discussions with the Virgin Hyperloop team.

Scime’s research on electromagnetic systems and vast knowledge of vacuum systems, mechanical knowledge, electronic design and powers systems helped him to identify those faculty and capabilities in the College that could be beneficial in facilitating the Virgin Hyperloop certification track construction and operation.

“I believe that the very practical, hands-on focus of much of the research in the Statler College was instrumental in convincing the Virgin Hyperloop team that we could be a valuable partner in this endeavor,” Scime said. “From mining to autonomous systems, the faculty and students of the Statler College cover the full range of necessary engineering expertise.”

This combination of research capabilities will be available to the Virgin Hyperloop team in the project’s backyard.

Transformative technology calls for integration of smart solutions

As Virgin Hyperloop begins to scale-up operations, manufacturing processes and mass production will become critically important, explained Industrial and Management Systems Engineering Assistant Professor Thorsten Wuest, who is at the forefront of research in advanced manufacturing and was recently named one of the 20 most influential professors in smart manufacturing by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.

“Smart and advanced manufacturing operations, as well as preparing the workforce for the advanced manufacturing tasks involved when working on a high-tech product such as Hyperloop are not optional,” Wuest said. “Questions around the appropriate degree of automation, how to best utilize artificial intelligence and the internet of things to optimize manufacturing processes and operations, and other industry 4.0 considerations have to be investigated and answered. We have a recognized strength in this area.”

Wuest explained that the novel work being carried out in WVU’s smart manufacturing lab on products to integrate sensor systems in products and collecting data along the product lifecycle, as well as upgradability of capital equipment positions them to be able to provide a wide range of solutions for adapting the most advanced technology into Hyperloop’s processes.

“Virgin Hyperloop is a transformative technology company. Engineering is at the heart of their vision and development,” Wuest said. “Thus, the Statler College naturally is a core resource that they considered in their decision process, both in terms of engineering, technology, materials and manufacturing moving forward.”

New possibilities for West Virginia

As Virgin Hyperloop establishes itself in the Mountain State, exciting new doors will open for students, researchers and the citizens of West Virginia alike. Throughout the last several decades, the Statler College has reached new heights with groundbreaking discoveries that intersect with initiative’s vision.

“The new partnership will not only bring benefits to the state and the Statler college but has the potential to directly impact our students by engaging with Virgin Hyperloop through senior design projects, student competitions and curriculum development,” Mago said. “Furthermore, this partnership will bring excitement to our engineering students because of all the new opportunities this project will provide beyond the classroom and lab.”

Virgin Hyperloop’s highly innovative system propels a pod-like capsule through a vacuum tube to transport cargo including goods and people at speeds exceeding 600 miles per hour. Along with Statler engineering experts, researchers from Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, and the visionary leadership from the John Chambers College of Business and Economics and Vantage Ventures moved West Virginia forward throughout the competitive selection process.

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