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Gliding on a highway

A snapshot of a maglev car gliding over a (modified) highway in China. Image credit: China Post

Using the repulsive force of two opposing magnetic field to move an object is nothing new. There are a few gadgets you can buy for entertaining friends in your living room showing a ball hovering -magically- in space. Industrial applications, involving heavy objects are trickier and far more expensive.

I had the opportunity of using the Maglev train connecting the Shanghai Airport (Pudong) to the outskirt of the city and I was surprised by the silent journey at 400+ kmh. It was also interesting to notice that the full speed was only for those trains running during peak hours, off peak the speed was decreased to 300 kmh to save on electricity cost. This is important because it shows that Maglev does not come cheap in operation terms.

Theoretically, moving an object by having it floating over a magnetic cushion decreases the drag so it requires lower power. However, in practice, the powering of the magnets is power hungry. Technology is still evolving and there is a tradeoff between the cost of the infrastructure and the operation efficiency.

Now a news from China is reporting on an experiment to show the possibility of a maglev car. TheMaglev car was a prototype (using a commercial car appropriately modified) developed by the Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu, China. Of course a Maglev car won’t do anything unless it has an infrastructure it can “float” on. They created a 7.9 km lane on a local highway, embedding the magnets in the tarmac. The cost has not been published but I would expect it was not peanuts. However, being an experiment that was not the issue.

The car managed to reach 230 kmh, not as fast as the Shanghai Maglev train but quite impressive. In the photo is shown floating one inch above the highway.

The long term objective is to find ways to save on power (because of the decreased drag of the wheels) but it is a really long term goal. Also, one should consider that at high speed most of the drag comes from the air and not from the wheels.

To me this is more about testing a technology than looking for a real future product.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.