Posted: March 18th, 2023
Today, innovations in transportation technologies have significantly improved the energy efficiency, CO2 emission rates and safety of aircraft, the railroad and trucking industries as well as automobiles. Although these innovations have provided some improvements compared to the past, there remains a desperate need to identify ways to improve these technologies even further to reduce carbon emissions, improve performance and increase safety. In 1984, the first commercial magnetic levitation train was introduced to the public. Maglev is a system of transportation that levitates and propels the train using electricity as the source of power. Comparing to other transportation such as automobile, conventional train, and airplane, this technology, by itself, produce nearly zero CO2 emission and can move at an incredible speed. All of this, of course, begs the question, “Is this technology logically feasible and can it be a replacement for the current transportation system?” To answer these questions, this paper review the relevant literature to determine the cost of production, emission during operation, safety, use of energy, potential improvement, and comparing magnetic levitation to the existing and potential alternatives. A summary of the research and important findings is presented in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
A recent example concerning how magnetic levitation (or “maglev”) can be applied to the transportation industry is the maglev train. Magnetic levitation is made possible through the use of superconductors which can attain virtually zero resistance (Ndahi, 2003). According to Ndahi, “It is possible to generate large amounts of electrical energy, which in turn is used to generate a magnetic field large enough to repel the magnets attached to the underside of a train car. This repulsion and other controlled variables allow the train to float or levitate and be propelled forward at speeds of between 200-300 mph” (Ndahi, 2003, p. 17). The speeds attainable by maglev trains are more than twice as fast as that of Amtrak’s current top-performer, the Acela high-speed train (Baard, 2006). A more straightforward definition of maglev technology is provided by Cavendish who reports, “[Maglev] trains are propelled forward by attractive or repulsive forces induced by electromagnets mounted in the trains and the track” (2003, p. 1254). Some countries, such as Germany, though, have used electromagnets rather that superconducting magnets for their maglev train systems (Maglev trains, 2010). The superconducting (or electro-) magnets that are used in maglev train systems are typically mounted beneath the train as well as in the raised tracks and guideways that frame the train (Baard, 2006). As Baard puts it, “The guideways can be either on the ground or built above existing highways to minimize environmental impact. A proposed California maglev network will cover 275 miles and move 500,000 riders rapidly between cities and to major airports, according to organizers” (2006, p. 26). This configuration helps to make maglev trains safe even at the higher speeds they travel. For instance, Toto reports that, “The bottom of the train wraps around the guideways, making derailments highly unlikely. The electromagnetic pulses propel the trains in one direction at a time, which would preclude having two trains hit head-on, and rear-end collisions are unlikely because all the trains would travel at the same rate as the magnetic pulse” (p. 1). Nevertheless, the high speeds involved mean that there is always the potential for disaster, an aspect of maglev train transportation that was made abundantly clear in 2006. According to report from the Birmingham Post, “A high-speed magnetic levitation train travelling at 125 mph crashed in north-western Germany, killing at least 15 people in the first fatal wreck involving the high-tech system. Officials recovered 15 bodies from the scene of the crash of the experimental train, which struck a maintenance cart while running on an elevated track. Ten more people were injured. The fate of six others was unclear” (at least 15 die as maglev crashes, 2006, p. 8). The report was quick to point out, though, that the cause of the crash was human error rather than defective maglev technology (at least 15 die as maglev crashes, 2006).
One country that has embraced maglev technology in a major way is China (Zande, 2010). In this regard, Stroh (2003) reports that in January 2002, China launched the first commercial magnetic levitation rail system in the world in Shanghai. According to Stroh, “China’s new 450-passenger maglev train sprints 19 miles between Shanghai’s financial district and its international airport. Reaching 270 mph — albeit for mere seconds before it begins to brake — the train cuts travel time from 30 minutes to less than 8. Ticket price: $6” (2003, p. 42). Currently, the Chinese railroad industry carries fully 25% of the entire world’s railway workload, making the need for these high-speed trains essential (Banutu-Gomez, 2007). According to Banutu-Gomez, “An example of China’s commitment to rail transportation system, in 2002 they completed China’s first maglev speed rail system. The maglev system uses magnetic levitation to lift the train above the track allowing the train to be propelled down the track at extremely high speeds with virtually no friction” (2007, p. 82). Based on their initial success with maglev, China has announced plans for the construction of another maglev train system that will connect Shanghai and Hangzhou, with the potential for an extension to Beijing in the future (Baard, 2006).
According to Toto, though, maglev technology is certainly not new: “Specialists say using electromagnetic energy in such a fashion dates, in crude form, to the 1950s” (2002, p. 1). In fact, rocket scientist Robert Goodard proposed transportation systems used magnetic levitation technologies as early as 1926 (Cleveland & Morris, 2006). An illustration of the inner workings of a maglev train is provided in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. Internal Workings of the Maglev Train
Source: National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 2010 at http://www.magnet.fsu.edu / education/tutorials/magnetacademy/superconductivity101/maglev.html
As can be readily discerned from Figure 1 above, the maglev technologies used in high-speed train systems are highly complex, but these complex technologies carry a number of benefits. For instance, a significant advantage of maglev technology relates to the fact that the internal combustion engines that are used by conventional trains are not required (Ndahi, 2003). By doing away with conventional engines, maglev trains enjoy decreased maintenance and spare part replacement costs (Ndahi, 2003). Researchers at the Brookhaven National Laboratory have been investigating maglev technologies for train systems and have developed a different approach that may help reduce the costs of operating these systems even further. According to Pohl, “[Scientists at Brookhaven] propose to forget about connecting strings of cars together to make trains. What they are talking about is single cars, carrying no more than a dozen or so passengers each. The cars are extremely lightweight compared with the usual railroad behemoth” (1999, p. 31).
Moreover, maglev train transportation can be delivered for approximately one-third of the cost of air transportation (Maglev trains, 2010), and these super-high speed trains will effectively compete against air travel for shorter distances (Baard, 2006). For example, Nickerson reports that, “The development of maglev technology would be good for the environment, because these systems would emit smaller quantities of air pollutants, such as hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulates, per passenger mile than more conventional forms of transportation” (1999, p. 177). Because fully 50% of all airline flights involve travel of less than 500 miles, maglev train technologies can provide a viable alternative to air travel for these shorter distances as well as providing service to existing hub-and-spoke airline networks (Nickerson, 1999). In this regard, Macdonald reports that, “Proponents claim that maglev can compete with airplanes for short and midrange routes, connecting cities downtown to downtown” (2002, p. 23). Likewise, Baard reports that, “The first planned maglev in California will take passengers from Union Station in Los Angeles to Ontario International Airport, east of the city, a distance of 56 miles. The trip, which will include four stops, is expected to take only 29 minutes. Try beating that in your car on the notoriously congested Santa Monica Freeway” (2006, p. 27).
In sum, proponents of maglev train service cite the following major points in support of these technologies:
1. It can relieve highway and airport congestion, especially in and around major metropolitan areas, and provide a safety valve for shorter distance air travel in clogged airports.
2. It can relieve air pollution caused by excessive highway utilization and address issues of climate change.
3. It is currently underfunded and technologically obsolete, and major investments and new technology could greatly increase its share of travel.
4. The U.S. lags behind other advanced (and some advancing) nations and can learn from the positive experiences in Europe and Asia.
5. It is safer than highway travel and on par with the safety records of commercial air and bus service.
6. It can provide new employment and stimulate new business enterprises.
7. In urban regions, it can help stimulate wiser land use and reinvigorate deteriorating urban centers.
8. It is a necessary modal alternative to air and high way travel in case of natural or human-made catastrophic events, such as the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina (Plant, 2009, p. 79).
Not everyone is of a like mind when it comes to the potential benefits of magnetic levitation technologies, though. While research into maglev train technologies has been underway in the United States since the mid-1960s following the passage of the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965, but much of the interest was limited to paper studies based on the perceived constraints involved in deploying maglev technologies (Uher, 1999). Based on the successes enjoyed by other countries, most notably Germany and China, maglev technologies for the nation’s train system received some new support during the late 1990s. For example, Macdonald points out that, “In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, a $218 billion blueprint for America’s transit systems, highways and bridges. It included $60 million from the Highway Trust Fund for the Magnetic Levitation Transportation Technology Deployment Program, and the possibility of $950 million more for construction in 2003” (2002, p. 24).
To date, seven states have taken advantage of these federal resources to develop maglev plans for their own venues (Macdonald, 2002). Critics of this legislation maintain that these programs are little more than boondoggles that unjustly benefit a few lawmakers and states at the expense of all taxpayers and the expensive changes that are required to the transportation infrastructure to make maglev trains truly feasible make the technologies a poor choice at present (Macdonald, 2002). Moreover, countries such as Japan, China and Germany already had much of the requisite infrastructure in place for their maglev train systems while the United States will be required to build these new transportation systems from the ground up in many cases (Uher, 1999). In response to these criticisms, advocates such as Christopher Brady of Transrapid International USA, a subsidiary of the German company that provided the technologies for the first Chinese maglev train, have countered, “Get that Buck Rogers notion out of your head. This is really just about building a bunch of bridges and slapping some electronics on top” (quoted in Stroh, 2003, p. 43).
A number of advocacy groups for citizens in the states targeted for maglev trains have also protested against the costs and land required for these plans to reach fruition (Macdonald, 2002). In addition, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, these arguments served to diminish federal enthusiasm for maglev trains, with more money being allocated to basic infrastructure repairs and maintenance and decreasing the funds available for maglev initiatives (Macdonald, 2002). More recently, though, federal support for improvements to the nationwide train system have increased, with $8 billion being allocated by the U.S. Department of Transportation as part of the federal stimulus package to reinvigorate the U.S. economy, but with no specific provisions for maglev projects (LaHood, 2009).
As noted above, the maglev train system in Germany employs electromagnets rather than superconducting magnets, a feature that introduces yet other problems in terms of maintenance and overall costs. Furthermore, even countries such as China and Japan that have deployed superconducting magnets for their maglev train systems must still cope with the enormous complexities involved in these technologies, According to Post, “The Japanese system used superconducting coils to produce the magnetic fields (as two American scientists first proposed in the late l960s). But because such coils must be kept very cool, costly cryogenic equipment is required on the train cars” (2000, p. 114). Although the German approach that uses electromagnets avoids this requirement, there are still problems with this alternative as well. In this regard, Post emphasizes that, “The German maglev uses conventional electromagnets rather than superconducting ones, but the system is inherently unstable because it is based on magnetic attraction rather than repulsion. In both systems, a malfunction could lead to a sudden loss of levitation while the train is moving. Minimizing that hazard means increased cost and complexity” (p. 114).
Notwithstanding these criticisms and constraints, other transportation-related technologies also stand to benefit from the introduction of superconducting magnetic levitation technologies. Besides trains, scientists are actively researching ways to develop automobiles that can employ maglev technology to achieve the same types of impressive performance results with reduced emissions. According to Michael and Easley, “A MagLev racer, or magnetic levitation vehicle, is a car that floats on a magnetic track. . . . By eliminating friction caused by tires, magnetic levitation vehicles are capable of exceeding speeds of over 500 mph” (2002, p. 18). These attributes mean that maglev-based transportation systems will help reduce emission levels and noise as well as realizing decreased energy costs (Baard, 2006).
Likewise, high-temperature superconductors are increasingly being used for flywheel energy storage and superconducting bearings (Ndahi, 2003). In addition, the elimination of friction in clutch systems holds a great deal of promise for increasing the efficiency of transportation methods that employ these systems. In this regard, Ndahi concludes that, “The use of levitation technology on rotating shafts can be made the basis for the design of non-contact clutch systems” (2003, p. 18). Just as friction is eliminated between the steel tracks and steel wheels of conventional trains through the use of maglev technologies, the application of maglev to rotating shafts which are involved in countless transportation-related technologies holds special promise for the future. As Ndahi emphasizes, “The friction produced by moving parts in almost all machines results in wear and tear on the parts, and this wear and tear can be prevented in the future by using magnetic levitation principles to design and manufacture parts” (2003, p. 18). Because friction is the cause of mechanical breakdowns, generates excessive heat and consumes additional quantities of energy, maglev technology may be able to reduce maintenance and repair costs significantly in the future (Ndahi, 2003). In addition, researchers at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory also note that, “A number of companies have been developing superconducting cables to carry electricity more efficiently, an application already in use in a number of markets” (Maglev trains, 2010, para. 2). Finally, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is interested in maglev technologies that may help the agency launch rockets more efficiently in the future (Post, 2000).
The research showed that magnetic levitation technologies have been envisioned for almost a century and were proposed early on by American researchers. In spite of this initial head-start, other countries such as Japan, China and Germany have launched their own maglev train projects and have experienced commercial success as a result. By sharp contrast, maglev initiatives continue to languish in the United States where interest tends to wax and wane as the political climate changes. In reality, maglev train technologies do have a number of downsides, including the high degree of complexity involved, the potential for catastrophic outcomes based on the high speeds that are involved, and the enormous amounts of land and rights-of-way that are required for these rail corridors. Despite these problems, researchers continue to refine the underlying technologies that are used for maglev transportation system, and several authorities indicated that a number of other industries stand to benefit from maglev in the future.
At least 15 die as maglev crashes. (2006, September 23). The Birmingham Post, 8.
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Cavendish, M. (2003). How it works: Science and technology. New York: Marshall Cavendish.
Cleveland, C.J. & Morris, C. (2006). Dictionary of energy. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
LaHood, R. (2009). U.S. Department of Transportation. Retrieved from http://www.fra.dot.gov / downloads/rrdev/hsrstrategicplan.pdf
Macdonald, S. (2002, May 6). Is costly maglev just a boondoggle? Enthusiasts claim maglev trains traveling at 250 mph might cure congestion woes, but analysts say this hugely expensive technology is not cost-effective. Insight on the News, 18(16), 23-24.
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