Science

China unveils super-fast magnetic levitation train prototype

The concept of the magnetic levitation train, or Maglev (Magnetic levitation), was developed in 1922 by the German engineer Hermann Kemper. Based on the phenomenon of electromagnetic levitation (magnetic / electrodynamic levitation), the train is not in contact with the rails and can therefore overcome the physical resistance to rolling, making it possible to reach high speeds (greater than 600 km / h). If Japan has been working on an advanced Maglev prototype for several years, China recently unveiled its own prototype: a high-temperature superconducting Maglev. This, according to its designers, differs in several ways from Japanese maglev and could be used within six years.

China has deployed a state-of-the-art Maglev vehicle prototype that its developers say could herald cheaper and faster next-generation magnetic levitation train transportation, even approaching the speed of some aircraft. Researchers from Southwest Jiaotong University on Wednesday unveiled the new train and 165-meter test track, located in Chengdu.

The train is designed to travel up to 620 km / h, but researchers said they are working to extend that speed to 800 km / h. The new Maglev is part of Beijing’s ambitious plan to create faster links between cities.

China has the world’s fastest commercial Maglev service, Shanghai Transrapid, which began operations in 2002, with a top speed of 430 km / h. A faster maglev line with superconducting technology operating at 500 km / h is expected to open in Japan in 2027, between Tokyo and Nagoya.

A Maglev using “high temperature” superconductivity

But researchers at Southwest Jiaotong University announced that their superconducting Maglev technology was more economical than that of their Japanese counterparts. Superconductivity emerges when the electrical resistance approaches zero when the superconducting material is cooled to a very low temperature. The superconducting state would be essential to support faster and more efficient Maglev vehicles.

Deng Zigang, a researcher at the State Key Laboratory of Traction Power at Southwest Jiaotong University, which is developing the new prototype, explains that the Japanese Chuo Shinkansen maglev line used liquid helium to achieve this extremely low temperature of -269 degrees Celsius for superconductivity.

Liquid helium is very expensive. Here we achieve superconductivity at a slightly higher temperature by using liquid nitrogen – and this reduces the cost to a fiftieth », Says Deng, concerning the Chinese technology« Maglev superconductor at high temperature ». The Chinese team also said that if the new Japanese Maglev had to accelerate first before it could levitate, the Chengdu prototype could levitate from a standstill start.

Commissioning possible within six years

Researchers told local media that there were still issues to be addressed before the new technology became commercially viable, a process they said could take up to six years. Wu Zili, senior engineer of the research team, explains that the estimated cost of building a new Maglev line would be between 250 million yen (31 million euros) and 300 million yen per kilometer, up from 200 million yen per kilometer for a standard high speed train.

This cost could drop if the Maglev lines were used en masse. Wu said the lighter Maglev wagon would also help lower the cost of building bridges and tunnels for the new maglev lines. The prototype launched on Wednesday uses carbon fiber and weighs about half the weight of its bullet train counterparts.

Another issue researchers are working on is noise, which engineers hope to reduce with better aerodynamics. They plan to build a much longer experimental track to test the Maglev on an actual ride.

Video explaining some of the technical characteristics of Chinese Maglev:

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