Magnetic-Levitation Trains Today Innovations in Term Paper

  • Length: 9 pages
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  • Subject: Transportation
  • Type: Term Paper
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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.


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LaHood, R. (2009). U.S. Department of Transportation. Retrieved from / 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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