Maglev Magic in Japan

by Ernst Knolle, Maglev Scientist

February, 2000

Behind the smoke screen is a useless technology, sky-rocketing cost and energy inefficiency. Much like in the fairy tale about the king's clothes, someone convinced Japan that great glory would come from this shiny new technology. But this maglev dream has turned into a nightmare.

After twenty years of testing, still continuing, here is the latest:

1. Cars filled with batteries and machines weighing more than a ton per passenger

2. On board energy use alone is two kilowatt per passenger, at track-side even more

3. Inflexible guideway needs extensive tunneling and plowing through neighborhoods

4. Two rows of large overlapping electric coils built into guideway

5. Four runways for pneumatic tires also built into the guideway as backups

6. Three power supply lines along the guideway for alternate use and back-up

7. Vehicle position detection wiring along guideway

8. Inductive power collection coils along guideway and on board

9. Power conversion stations.

Like past European governments with Super Sonic Transports (SST), most of which are now rusting away on abandoned air bases, the Japanese government got goaded into electro-dynamic (EDS) maglev technology as a unique opportunity to impress the world. They poured money into it ever since. But, just throwing money at a technology is not going to change the laws of physics.

EDS is a type of maglev, where coils of wires on board are cooled to near absolute zero. Vehicles have wheels underneath and on the sides to roll on during acceleration in U-shaped guideways. When speed reaches about 160 km/h (100 mph), energized coils in the walls of the guideway cause vehicles to levitate magnetically. It's a little like an aircraft taking off on runways. Butr, an important difference is that EDS levitation is inherently unreliable and vehicles must always be able to instantly come down on wheels. Hence, the rolling surface cannot end after lift-off, instead it must continued to the next station.

Cooling of on board coils to near absolute zero makes them super-conductive, allowing currents to create large magnetic fields. Powerful refrigeration units provide the cooling. Maintaining low coil temperature is critical. Warming of only one or two degrees results in coil burn-out and levitation collapse. The magnetic field contains dangerous electromagnetic radiation (EMR), closeup about 5,000 Gauss. Barriers prevent passengers from getting too close, but they may still be exposed to as much as 200 Gauss. In comparison, people with cardiac pacemakers are in danger if exposed above 10 Gauss, computers should not get over 50 Gauss, and a California school was closed when EMR of less than 5 Gauss was detected.

While the starting and stopping of EDS vehicles is similar to aircraft, when underway they resemble U-boats, because both rely totally on batteries for periods of their operations, U-boats when traveling under water, and EDS maglev when at speed under 170 km/h (100 mph). Batteries are heavy, have limited capacity, and they are also dangerous. Many U-boats have perished because of battery accidents. While EDS advocates point to the need to "get away from wheels", wheels here are the safety net for almost all potential troubles. But wheels are in trouble themselves at high speed. Planes take off and land at 200 km/h (135 mph) and have an occasional blow-out, but they have 16 wheels for security. Racing cars go around tracks at 320 Km/h (200 mph) and change tires every 400 km (250 miles). EDS system speed is 500 hm/h (310 mph) and setting down on wheels at that speed presents another great danger. Wheel troubles have already caused melt-downs of EDS test vehicles. If it should happen with passengers on board, there is virtually no chance of survival.

After several conversions, a moving field of electric power is fed, in sections, into rows of overlapping coils located in the walls on each side of the U-shaped guideway, which propel and levitate the vehicles. Sections of the coils are turned on ahead of the traveling vehicle, and tuned off behind. Sections with energized coils are 6 km (3.8 miles) long, of which a three-car train utilizes only 20 m (70 feet), which means the energy for (6,000 - 20 = 5,980) m of energized coils is lost.

The main reasons why Japanese EDS maglevs are heading for the SST scrap heap:

1. Capital cost US$200 million/ mile (US$125 million/km), which pays for 20,000 tons/mile (13,000 tons/km) of concrete, 6,000 ton/mile (3,700 tons/km) of copper coils, bridges and tunnels

2. Enormous energy waste. Lights dim in neighborhood during test run. This EDS maglev's equivalent fuel efficiency is less than 1/2 passenger-km per liter of fuel. In comparison, privately manufactured and operated aircraft by tax-paying entities achieve fuel efficiency of 40 passenger-km per liter of fuel at twice the speed of the EDS. That is a ratio of 100 to one

3. EDS has too many sub-systems where any imperfect performance or failure may have disastrous results

4. EDS emits dangerous electromagnetic radiation.

Ernst Knolle is the inventor of the Magnetrans technology and resides in California 

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Last modified: July 05, 2004