Sustainability Through Technology Part 1 - Magnetic Levitation

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It is not certain that the earth we should be trying to save today will exist to see the technology of tomorrow. In my posts, I'd like to introduce different examples of how technology is being used to help create a more sustainable way of life.

With each year comes exponential growth in the development of new technology. As consumers, we have seen the effects of this: cheaper televisions with better image resolution, more compact laptops capable of performing more complex programs, and the ever-upgrading ubiquitous i-devices such as the iPhone and the iPad. While it appears that the focus of development has been conveniences for us, shouldn't the focus equally or even more so be on developing technology to help the earth on which we live?

Luckily, professionals have been addressing technology and the environment for years. We've all heard about innovations such as solar panels and wind turbines. But there are other ways that technology is being used to help reduce the human footprint, and it is extremely likely that you'll see these advances in your lifetime.

Levitating Transportation to a New Level


Magnets probably amazed you when you first played with them in science class. The fun of pulling them apart is only beaten by the joy of using one to push the other one away. But one of the most interesting tricks of magnets is magnetic levitation. With strong enough magnets, you can lift anything you want.

Now imagine an entire train, magnetically levitated, transporting passengers to their destinations at over 250 mph. Such trains exist. As of today, there are two commercial maglev trains in operation, one in China and one in Japan.

The idea of using magnets for high speed transportation is not new. Patents have been around since the early 1900s, but the technology to use magnets for transportation was not available until the late 1980s. The concept, however, is simple. The underbody of the train is lined with magnets, all facing the same way, and the train track is also lined with magnets. Opposite sides push the train from the track, creating an air cushion.

As of right now, there are three main forms of maglev: the Electromagnetic Suspension (EMS), the Electrodynamic Suspension (EDS), and the Inductrak.

levitation techniques.png

The EDS has magnets on both the train and the track, and the magnets repel each other; this system needs less feedback from computers, but still needs wheels to operate. The EMS has cars with arms underneath the train that wrap around the track. Electromagnets, when energized, lift the train and propel it forward. The Inductrak system uses a special arrangement of magnets to converge the magnetic field on one side, while canceling it on the other. The Inductrak goes slower, which could be a benefit for a train with multiple stops, such as commuter trains. The maglev trains currently in development in the United States use this system.

The benefits of maglev trains are substantial. The ways that trains currently run involve an electric motor, which produces air pollution from emissions. With maglev trains, there would be little to no air pollution. In addition, since the train doesn't touch the track when moving, there would be no mechanical friction, which means less wear and tear on the parts, less maintenance costs and less noise. And most importantly for the passengers, the trains would be much faster. Transportation costs would go down as trains would rival airplanes for longer travel.

Now you may be wondering why these trains are not everywhere. It is the usual reason - money. Maglev trains and tracks have an extremely high start up cost. People are wary to invest when we already have working transportation systems in place. Widespread adaption to maglev would require building new tracks all across the country.

As technology develops further, it is likely that we will see commercial Maglev trains in countries besides China and Japan (they have already tested or are developing tracks in the UK, Germany, and the United States). One of the most exciting things about Maglev train development is the potential for future transportation. An entire city on a magnetic grid could pave the way for a science fiction fan's dreams - hover crafts and hover boards (and without pollution, too!).

japanese maglev train mlu002n on test bed.png

Japanese Maglev train MLU002N on test bed 

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