Spoutin' Off: ODU's maglev project is truly magnetic
By Michael Rau
November 13, 2006
I read a news story recently that inspired me to write something on a project that is forwarding technology which could yield huge benefits for us all.
You wont find it in your home and it may not be immediately obvious what it means to you, so I thought Id offer a big picture view and wax poetic for a few paragraphs on Old Dominion Universitys much vaunted and denigrated maglev project.
Most of you are probably at least aware of the project. Its been reported on in local media, including here in the Daily Press from time to time.
Through a confluence of events and opportunities, ODU became the chosen site a few years ago to construct an experimental version of a magnetic-levitation rail transportation system. The concept originated with a Florida-based firm called American Maglev Technology, Inc.
Briefly, a maglev train uses a powerful magnetic field, such as that apparent when you try to put the incompatible poles of two magnets together, to suspend the vehicle above, and propel it down a track (look ma no wheels!).
Now obviously its a bit more complicated, and if you want to learn more about how it works, Id recommend checking out the entry on maglev technology on the Wikipedia Web site.
One type of maglev system has already been proven. Its from a German firm and is being used for a very high-speed commuter link between Shanghai, China and its outlying airport. By all accounts, its an absolute marvel.
The problem is that is was fantastically expensive to build. The reason being that the system utilizes a so-called smart-track, dumb-train arrangement, where the magnetic levitation / propulsion system is integrated into the track. This means every foot of the track requires a complex combination of magnets, switches, and computer controls, to operate the system, making the per-mile cost very high.
Enter the ODU maglev project.
Having been rejected by other institutions, American Maglev found a willing partner in ODU, and in 1999, launched their demonstration project with much fanfare.
What makes the concept behind ODUs maglev different is that it uses a smart-train, dumb-track arrangement, in contrast to the German system.
With the magnetic levitation/propulsion system located in the train instead of the track, and the track itself being not much more than a steel rail to provide magnetic resistance, the per-mile cost for construction and maintenance promises to be dramatically lower, thereby making such a system much more economically viable.
Success in this endeavor could provide the means to create a new, cost-effective high-speed mass transportation system something that this country desperately needs.
Following the first test of the system during construction, all kinds of problems were discovered, particularly with an unexpected and disconcerting vibration in the train car as it moved down the track.
Almost immediately, sources of funding began drying up and eventually, even American Maglev had to retreat from the project due to financial issues. People started writing letters to the editor denouncing the project as a waste of money.
Fortunately, in a demonstration of courage and vision, ODU made a commitment to keeping the project alive, and since then, aerospace engineering professor Thomas Alberts and his team have plugged away at the problems with whatever funds ODU could scrape up on their behalf. Last month they hit paydirt.
According to the previously mentioned news article, Alberts team was informed that theyd need to move the train to a different part of the track to accommodate construction on campus. Having been working on the systemic problems to the point of almost being ready for a test, the team hustled the necessary equipment into the train, and last month levitated the vehicle and moved it with, according to the report, almost none of the previous problematic vibration a huge leap forward.
The cost-to-date, to get the project to this point, is about $16 million. Now thats a lot to you and me, but consider: The entire cost so far represents the price for less than a half a mile of the Shanghai maglev project; it represents less money than we spend in three hours to occupy Iraq; its less than Bill Gates makes in one day.
Once this technology is proven to be viable (and it will be), I hope ODU reaps financial rewards for their entrepreneurial vision and devotion to the advancement of science and technology.
But truthfully, what Id also like to see is some far-thinking member of Americas uber-wealthy upper class someone like, say, Paul Allen, who is using a chunk of his fortune to fund the commercial advancement of space flight become the patron of this project and provide the funding it deserves.
So, hats off to ODU, Prof. Alberts, and his team of intrepid researchers. Im really looking forward to my first ride.
And if I may be so bold, allow me to offer a big fat raspberry to the doubters, naysayers, and tightwads who, if we all had their lack of vision, would have us still waiting on the first horseless carriage.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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