Wednesday, April 1, 2009 | As the engineers watch from the control room, the train car glides down the guideway towards the concrete pillars of Interstate 5 in the far distance. It takes a moment to notice the unusual thing about the train.

The wheels aren’t touching the guiderails. The train is riding on thin air.

Designed and built here in San Diego, this is General Atomics’ maglev or magnetic levitation train, operating since 2004 at their Sorrento Valley test track. With federal money now available for a variety of high-speed rail and maglev projects around the country, GA’s work with maglev could soon be on its way to its first application.

Maglev is not in itself a new technology; maglev trains have been in operation for years in both China and Japan. The most famous such system, the airport connector in Shanghai, China, whizzes passengers from Pudong International Airport and back at a top speed of 275 mph — without any seatbelts, no less. Another maglev design in Japan has topped 360 mph in tests to become the world’s fastest train.

Yet as impressive as such speeds may be, many maglev projects suffer from a common drawback: they can be expensive to build. Maglevs require specially constructed tracks or guideways they are unable to share with other trains.

In 2006, the San Diego Association of Governments studied a maglev connector to a proposed Imperial County airport, and they estimated that while costs for freeway construction, for example, typically range from $5 million to $20 million per lane per mile, maglev could cost anywhere from $144 million to $200 million per mile to construct.

General Atomics believes its newer breed of maglev could cut the cost of construction and offer other advantages as well — by using a different design.

Unlike most maglevs, which use computer-controlled electromagnets to create magnetic fields that keep the train hovering over the track, GA’s system relies on permanent magnets — like the ones in children’s toys, only many times stronger. Since GA’s design doesn’t need the superconducting electromagnets, sophisticated electronics or heavy on-board equipment featured in many maglevs, GA claims its design will prove to be a cheaper way to levitate.

General Atomics, in conjunction with a consortium of companies called the Urban Maglev Group, originally planned to build a line to connect two different areas of the campus at California University of Pennsylvania in the city of California, Penn., at an estimated cost of $250 million.

That project has for some time been awaiting funding, and while 80 percent of the money for development of the technology itself has come from the Department of Transportation, the other 20 percent has come from the companies involved themselves. “It’s very easy to get people interested — it’s not so easy to get funding,” says Sam Gurol, director of maglev systems at GA.

This, at least, could be about to change. The federal stimulus package passed in February of this year allocated $8 billion in government money to fund high-speed rail and maglev projects around the country; a variety of different projects are potentially eligible, and the Federal Railroad Administration has yet to select the recipients.

“It is premature to speculate which states will seek or receive funds,” Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said in an e-mail, although the FRA will outline the criteria they’ll use to pick from the applicants by April 18. Nor are the stimulus funds the only prizes at stake: the Obama administration’s proposed budget includes another $5 billion program of grants over 5 years for high-speed and intercity rail improvements.

One of the maglev projects competing for cash is the proposed maglev line from Anaheim to Las Vegas. If the project receives funding and is built, General Atomics would provide the power and propulsion components for the system, which would be based on the same technology used for the maglev in Shanghai.

The Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles have also expressed interest in General Atomics’ urban maglev as a “zero-emission” container system that could be used to transfer cargo to and from the ports. It’s too soon yet to tell whether money will go to any of the projects in which General Atomics is involved.

If the university project in Pennsylvania receives funding, for instance, GA could be ready to begin construction later this year, Gurol says, and require three and a half to four years to complete.

General Atomics’ interest in maglev, while it might appear a departure for a San Diego company best known for its work as a defense contractor and with nuclear research, actually followed naturally from its experience with fusion. In fact, both Gurol and Bob Baldi, the senior program manager for GA’s urban maglev, originally worked on fusion before the maglev program’s inception in 1993.

Nuclear fusion reactors, like the one General Atomics operates in Sorrento Valley, use superconducting electromagnets to generate intense magnetic fields, trapping hydrogen gas superheated to temperatures of as much as 100 million degrees. These extremes of heat and pressure create the conditions for nuclear fusion, the reaction that powers the stars. While no earthbound researchers have yet been able to harness fusion for human use, General Atomics’ work with magnetic coils for fusion reactors, Gurol says, led to an interest in magnetic levitation as a means of transport.

“A group of companies from Pittsburgh came to us and they said we want to do maglev for a number of reasons — because from a long-term perspective they saw it as the best way to deal with congestion. Originally we were looking at a superconducting design like the one at Yamanashi in Japan,” Gurol says, “because of our background and work we’d done in the past, we were thinking that a superconducting system would be best.”

But after evaluating several different methods, they chose instead to work with permanent magnets, using a system called Inductrack invented by a team headed by Richard Post at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In 2003 GA licensed the Inductrack technology for further development.

Inductrack — and General Atomics’ maglev — levitate using magnets in the train’s undercarriage; when the train is moving, these magnets create a current in coils of wire hidden in the track. The coils of wire in the track and the magnets on the train begin to repel each other just like two north pole magnets would if you push them together. As long as the train keeps moving, this force keeps it airborne; when it slows down or comes to a stop, it settles back down onto its wheels, which are permanently deployed.

To actually get the train moving, GA uses electromagnets concealed in the track that push on the train, the same way one half of a motor pushes on the other. Once the train is in motion it rides on its invisible one-inch cushion of magnetic fields “like a surfer on a wave,” Gurol says. The whole system is automated and can be remotely controlled so that the operator need not even be aboard.

Not only could GA’s urban maglev be cheaper to construct than competing designs, Gurol contends, but a maglev train like GA’s has a number of advantages compared to conventional trains like Amtrak as well. While maglev lines can cost more to build, he believes they could also cost less to run. Most cars and trains have moving parts that wear down and have to be replaced; just think about how often your car needs an oil change or periodic repair. Maglevs, by contrast, have no moving parts and thus might need far less maintenance.

Furthermore, maglevs could potentially be designed to take steeper grades or hills and, unlike cars or diesel trains that burn fossil fuel, are powered by electricity. Depending on how the electricity used to power the maglev train is generated, maglevs could be a greener form of transportation. Finally, maglev trains — since there is no contact with the rail — can be comparatively quiet, which might under some circumstances be an advantage for urban planners.

“It’s very quiet, so you don’t have to go underground for noise abatement,” Baldi says. “A lot of the time with steel wheel on steel rail, planners are obliged to put those underground because of the noise, and that’s expensive. We found looking at typical alignments — we did one for downtown Pittsburgh. … If they were going to do the same route with light rail, half of the alignment would have to be underground, just for the noise abatement. And it’s unbelievable but the cost of the earthwork actually triples the cost of the project.”

The real test for the merits of GA’s maglev design will come, however, with its first application. “Really the challenge is to go the next step,” Gurol says. “Nobody’s going to buy a train just with what you see on the test track; we need to build a demonstration system.” Given funding they hope soon to be able to find a chance to do just that.

If funding does indeed become available — and if GA is able to put its maglev technology to use — it will have been a success more than a decade in the making for San Diego’s levitating train. For now, here in the Sorrento Valley, the prototype maglev floats down the guideway before its wheels touch the rails for a gentle landing: back on track, its designers hope, to a faster future.

Jonathan Parkinson is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact him directly at jlparkinson1@gmail.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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