[/caption]Overcoming the pull of gravity and fighting acceleration are major challenges for scientists looking to achieve flight and/or high-speed transportation. One way that they overcome this is the modern and growing technology known as Magnetic Levitation. Relying on rare earth magnets, superconductors, electromagnets and diamagnets, magnetic levitation is now used for maglev trains, magnetic bearings and for product display purposes. Today, maglev transportation is one of the fastest growing means of transportation in industrialized countries. This method has the potential to be faster, quieter and smoother than wheeled mass transit systems and the power needed for levitation is usually not a particularly large percentage of the overall consumption; most of it being used to overcome air drag. In William Gibson’s novel Spook Country, maglev technology was also featured in the form of a “maglev bed”, a bed which used magnets to stay suspended in midair.
Magnetic levitation (aka. maglev or magnetic suspension) is the method by which an object is suspended with no support other than magnetic fields. According to Earnshaw’s theorem (a theory which is usually referenced to magnetic fields), it is impossible to stably levitate against gravity relying solely on static ferromagnetism. However, maglev technology overcomes this through a number of means. These include, but are not limited to, mechanical constraint (or pseudo-levitation), diamagnetism levitation, superconductors, rotational stabilization, servomechanisms, induced currents and strong focusing.
Pseudo-levitation relies on two magnets that are mechanically arranged to repel each other strongly, or are attracted but constrained from touching by a tensile member, such as a string or cable. Another example is the Zippe-type centrifuge where a cylinder is suspended under an attractive magnet, and stabilized by a needle beading from below. Diamagnetic levitation occurs when diamagnetic material is placed in close proximity to material that produces a magnetic field, thus repelling the diamagnetic material. Superconductor-levitation is achieved much the same way, superconductors being a perfect diamagne. Due to the Meissner effect, superconductors also have the property of having completely expelled their magnetic fields, allowing for further stability.
The first commercial maglev people mover was simply called “MAGLEV” and officially opened in 1984 near Birmingham, England. It operated on an elevated 600-metre (2,000 ft) section of monorail track between Birmingham International Airport and Birmingham International railway station, running at speeds up to 42 km/h (26 mph). Perhaps the most well-known implementation of high-speed maglev technology currently in operation is the Shanghai Maglev Train, a working model of the German-built Transrapid train that transports people 30 km (19 mi) to the airport in just 7 minutes 20 seconds, achieving a top speed of 431 km/h and averaging 250 km/h.
We have written many articles about magnetic levitation for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the uses of electromagnets, and here’s an article about how magnets work.
If you’d like more info on the magnetic levitation, check out these articles from How Stuff Works and Hyperphysics.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Magnetism. Listen here, Episode 42: Magnetism Everywhere.