What happens when you have a superior technology but a long expensive road to develop it? The answer: slow results. Magnetic levitation is an existing technology that applies our knowledge of electromagnetism and for some purposes, superconducting materials.
The basis for the science goes back to elementary school when we found that the same poles on magnets repulse one another. With a specialized track to keep the train in place, imagine a typical subway but without the need for friction between wheel and rail for almost the entire ride – because there’s no need for wheels (or even an engine for that matter) except for initial acceleration. Magnets of the same poll as the rail line the train’s undercarriage so it has a controlled stationary float. Propulsion is created by magnetic attraction to pull the train along, turning sections of the track’s electromagnets on and off.
Perfecting the timing and strength of the propulsion will shatter existing speed records for conventional trains, connecting populations and economies over longer distances and cutting travel and transport times. We’re talking in the 300 mph/500 kph range here. Imagine leaving Toronto on a Friday after work and being home in Kingston for dinner, or in Montreal to catch most of the 7’oclock news. No fuel burned, no worn down parts on the train, but in exchange for a track that is relatively expensive to build and needs access to electricity. The labour market would be able to travel longer distances and shorter commutes to work without having fuel costs, which disproportionately helps lower income neighbourhoods. Cities benefit from being the major hubs of travel and transport, while rural communities can supply and access goods more cheaply. Building on top of existing highway, utility and rail infrastructure could also minimize costs, with 90 per cent of the Canadian population living within a 250 km strip of space north of the American border. If combined with solar arrays along the tracks, energy dependence on the grid is minimized. It would seriously undermine shorter distance flights because of cost and convenience dynamics.
Leading the world in the technology’s development are Germany and Japan, each with their own approach. Japan uses superconducting electromagnets cooled to extremely low temperatures in a system called Electrodynamic Suspension (EDS). Superconductivity is a property of some elements and metal alloys or compounds that kicks in when cooled to very low temperatures. What occurs at these frigid temperatures (i.e. colder than -230 degrees Celsius), is that the superconductor will expel a magnetic field from within its material, while also incurring no electrical resistance, creating savings on electric efficiency but requiring expensive cooling systems. Magnets interacting with the superconductor float and lock in place through a phenomenon known as quantum locking.
The German model is called Electromagnetic suspension (EMS), which avoids the cooling systems needed for superconductivity but gives up electric resistance.
There are approximately 25 serious Mag Lev projects in various stages of development worldwide. While all green projects have fixed infrastructure costs, the combination of benefits and low operating costs are still waiting to reach critical mass economically. With adoption of Mag Lev trains on a larger scale, the next step would be setting up adaptable personal transit for long distance car travel. As a sweetener, the quantum locking achieved in superconductivity may also further revolutionize the shipping industry as even very thin disks can support relatively heavy objects. Magnetic containment fields for volatile shipping or at least reducing ship tonnage dramatically could be around the corner.