How do you go about getting a job in a field that doesn't exist?

Melbourne student Matt O'Callaghan was faced with this dilemma two years ago during the final stages of his aerospace engineering degree when he came across Silicon Valley powerhouse Elon Musk's Hyperloop white paper.

The potentially revolutionary, but at the time basically imaginary, transport system proposed to carry people and cargo across great distances, comfortably, at close to the speed of sound.

As a country kid who had made the move to Melbourne, he saw the need for such a system in Australia, and it also appealed to the feeling he had that he should use his unique skill set to "do something for humanity".

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"I just had to do it," the 24-year-old told news.com.au.

With a lot of Googling and leaving behind many defaced napkins, Matt was trying to figure out how he could help design a Hyperloop pod that would work, and how to get into this make-believe industry - Mr Musk had dropped his white paper but signalled no intention to make it reality.

But just as he was preparing to adjust his ambitions, SpaceX announced it would run a worldwide competition. The finalists would have their designs tested at the company's world-class facilities in the US, and officially join the race to bring the Hyperloop to life.

The just-unveiled prototype. Photo / RMIT
The just-unveiled prototype. Photo / RMIT

After a massive slog to convince fellow engineering students and his university, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Matt established VicHyper and assembled a crew of seven to start designing, building, and chasing funding for the massive project that would take months of work, dozens of sleepless night, and the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment and kind donations.

Eighteen months later, the RMIT team has expanded to a 30-strong unit of engineering, communications and business students, and have gathered more than 25 corporate sponsors allowing them to make it happen.

At an exclusive event in Melbourne on Monday night, the team unveiled the prototype pod they're preparing to ship to California where it will be tested as one of 30 finalists in the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition.

For the crew of undergrads, who have already beat out teams of more than 100 with enormous financial backing from universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Delft University, coming this far is incredible.

VicHyper co-founder and project leader Zac McLelland, 29, says the crew are definitely the underdogs of the competition.

He says the US teams, who also have the advantage of being able to test their machines on ready-built tracks that would cost billions to build here, don't face the level of doubt and resistance that the Australian team had convincing supporters - many jaded from witnessing multiple failed high speed rail proposals - their project was worth investing in.

Zac understands the hesitance. He didn't really take Matt suggestion to pursue the project seriously when his friend and former colleague called him up and pitched his plan 18 months ago.

Matt O'Callaghan and Zac McLelland are leading the VicHyper project. Photo / RMIT
Matt O'Callaghan and Zac McLelland are leading the VicHyper project. Photo / RMIT

It was on a long drive from his home town 50km north of Albury back to Melbourne a week or so later that he realised Hyperloop was what Australia needed. He saw the need for an efficient ground transport system that could run between Melbourne and Sydney in under an hour, and from the CBD to rural towns in minutes. To him, now, the end game is obvious.

"We need it. We're an ideal location for it," he told news.com.au ahead of last night's launch.

"With the number of people we move between Melbourne and Sydney, it's just essential. We did the flight the other day and it was pretty much three hours from CBD to CBD, and that's just too long.

"We're moving eight million domestic passengers a year between Melbourne and Sydney and something like five million between Sydney and Brisbane. We've got all the resources, all the knowledge, the sunlight to solar power it, it's just ideal."

One of the big challenges, as well as designing and building a revolutionary high speed ground transport portal from scratch, has been getting support.

"The thing that makes it so scary for people is convincing them that it's going to work and it's going to be effective when they can't see the final product and don't really have anything tangible to go on," Zac said.

"People are also wary that it could go the way of high speed rail proposal that have failed in the past. It makes it scary because they're like 'We heard this last year, we've heard this before', but this is different, it's more sustainable and it's faster."

For those who doubt the actual technology and dismiss the super-fast transport system as fantasy, Zac's message is simple.

"The technology's already there. Even though a Hyperloop hasn't been made before, all the systems are used somewhere else," he said.

The team looked to supersonic aircraft to borrow elements that would give the pod speed, high speed rail whose motor designs they could pinch, and roller-coasters for their braking systems.

The crew, starting with seven students, has grown to a team of 30 but they're still among the smallest in the competition and definitely have the farthest to travel. Photo / RMIT
The crew, starting with seven students, has grown to a team of 30 but they're still among the smallest in the competition and definitely have the farthest to travel. Photo / RMIT

"You go pluck it from wherever you need it and just change it a little bit to make it work together," Zac said.

"All the technology's there, it just needs to be put together a little bit differently."

And the way the team have put their technology together has been impressive.

Using a Linear Induction Motor and magnetic levitation, along with their award-winning braking system, VicHyper has developed a prototype they believe will have the ability to transport both people and cargo at the speed of sound (1200km/h).

The aim is to create the fifth mode of transport, which is faster than planes, safer than cars, and more energy efficient than trains, with potential to be powered solely by renewable energy such as solar, wind, and geothermal where geographically permitting.

The pods will operate within an elevated tube network held at near vacuum which they'll travel through.

By evacuating the air within the tube, a near-vacuum atmosphere like that for an aircraft flying at high altitude is created, dramatically reducing drag. Combined with magnetic levitation and Linear Induction Motors for propulsion, the Hyperloop will be able to reduce the frictional resistance and wearing parts as with traditional wheeled transport systems.

VicHyper's point of difference to its competitors is focusing on the braking system rather than the levitation element. Its award-winning system which saw it knock out US teams populated with PhD students in the competition's first round in Texas sees the wheeled pod incorporate Eddy Current Arrays, battery-powered Linear Induction Motors and rail brakes alongside a stability system using friction pads and wheeled brakes.

Assuming they get through the testing phases they'll need to make it onto the track in California, VicHyper will be the first team in the world to operate a Linear Induction Motor within a vacuum.

The pod shell is made from a "unique 3D woven fabric" largely comprised of resin-infused carbon fibre which is lightweight, and the sleek simple design is aerodynamically optimised.

It also looks cool. The prototype is smaller than a functioning pod will be and therefore doesn't demonstrate the passenger-carrying element. But design previews of what the inside of a pod could look like, complete with plans to include screens that show the surroundings outside the windowless tube, preview a comfortable and enjoyable journey.

VicHyper has also moved to counter existing criticisms of Hyperloop proposals and reservations around the feasibility of high-speed ground transport in general.

The boys are used to dismissive comments from commentators like blogger Alon Levy who now infamously labelled Mr Musk's original proposal a plan for a "barf ride", saying it would be impossible to make it work without passengers' stomach's being churned for the duration of a high-speed ride and cause extreme motion sickness.

"The user experience was everything, it's always in mind at every stage of designing and building this," Zac said.

"There's a lot of people that doubt it and go 'It's going to be too hard on the body', it's fine, it's just the acceleration that's hard and we're going to do that gently. We've got brakes you know, we can slow down for the corners if they're too sharp but we use a very, very large corner radius so you can just keep going at full speed. It's not that complicated."

VicHyper has also been working to emphasise diversity and break down gender barriers in engineering in its project. Electrical engineering student Hayley Whitehead, 24, started working on VicHyper following an internship at Boeing, and says the ratio of female to male engineers on the team, around one to three, is a lot more inclusive than other significant projects and companies, and in her course.

As well as their corporate sponsors, the team has gained the backing of industry figures and the Victorian government. They've been announced as finalists in the Premier's Design Awards and at the prototype launched were praised by Victoria's Small Business, Trade and Innovation Minister Philip Dalidakis.

While they're looking forward to heading to the US for the SpaceX Hyperloop Competition Weekend in California competing as one of 30 finalists, the VicHyper team's ambitions go beyond the finals that could see their design incorporated into SpaceX's project.

"We need Hyperloop in Australia," Matt says.

"It's such a big priority, and to be part of bringing that here, it would just be the ultimate goal."