Retrotechtacular: A Very British MagLev

When we look back to the 1970s it is often in a light of somehow a time before technology, a time when analogue was still king, motor vehicles had carburettors, and telephones still had rotary dials.

In fact the decade had a keen sense of being on the threshold of an exciting future, one of supersonic air travel, and holidays in space. Some of the ideas that were mainstream in those heady days didn’t make it as far as the 1980s, but wouldn’t look out of place in 2018.

The unlikely setting for todays Retrotechtacular piece is the Bedford Levels, part of the huge area of reclaimed farmland in the east of England known collectively as the Fens. The Old Bedford River and the New Bedford River are two straight parallel artificial waterways that bisect the lower half of the Fens for over 20 miles, and carry the flood waters of the River Ouse towards the sea. They are several hundred years old, but next to the Old Bedford River at their southern end are a few concrete remains of a much newer structure from 1970. They are all that is left of a bold experiment to create Britain’s first full-sized magnetic levitating train, an experiment which succeeded in its aim and demonstrated its train at 170 miles per hour, but was eventually canceled as part of Government budget cuts.

A track consisting of several miles of concrete beams was constructed during 1970 alongside the Old Bedford River, and on it was placed a single prototype train. There was a hangar with a crane and gantry for removing the vehicle from the track, and a selection of support and maintenance vehicles. There was an electrical pick-up alongside the track from which the train could draw its power, and the track had a low level for the hangar before rising to a higher level for most of its length.

After cancellation the track was fairly swiftly demolished, but the train itself survived. It was first moved to Cranfield University as a technology exhibit, before in more recent years being moved to the Railworld exhibit at Peterborough where it can be viewed by the general public. The dream of a British MagLev wasn’t over, but the 1980s Birmingham Airport shuttle was hardly in the same class even if it does hold the honour of being the world’s first commercial MagLev.

We have two videos for you below the break, the first is a Cambridge Archaeology documentary on the system while the second is a contemporary account of its design and construction from Imperial College. We don’t take high-speed MagLevs on our travels in 2018, but they provide a fascinating glimpse of one possible future in which we might have.

It does make one wonder: will the test tracks for Hyperloop transportation break the mold and find mainstream use or will we find ourselves 50 years from now running a Retrotechtacular on abandoned, vacuum tubes?

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How to Levitate 100lbs

Most of our readers are already going to be familiar with how electromagnets work — a current is induced (usually with a coil) in a ferrous core, and that current aligns the magnetic domains present in the core. Normally those domains are aligned randomly in such a way that no cumulative force is generated. But, when the electric field created by the coil aligns them a net force is created, and the core becomes a magnet.

As you’d expect, this is an extremely useful concept, and electromagnets are used in everything from electric motors, to particle accelerators, to Beats by Dre headphones. Another use that you’re probably familiar with from your high school physics class is levitation. When two magnets are oriented with the same pole towards each other, they repel instead of attract. The same principle applies to electromagnets, so that an object can be levitated using good ol’ electricity.

That, however, isn’t the only way to levitate something using magnets. As shown in the video below, permanent magnets can be used to induce a current in conductive material, which in turn exerts a magnetic field. The permanent magnets induce that current simply by moving — in this case on rotors spun by electric motors. If the conductive material is placed below the magnets (like in the video), it will push back and you’ve got levitation.

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Fail of the Week: Pinewood Derby Cheat Fails Two Ways

Would you use your tech prowess to cheat at the Pinewood Derby? When your kid brings home that minimalist kit and expects you to help engineer a car that can beat all the others in the gravity-powered race, the temptation is there. But luckily, there are some events that don’t include the kiddies and the need for parents to assume the proper moral posture. When the whole point of the Pinewood Derby is to cheat, then you pull out all the stops, and you might try building an electrodynamic suspension hoverboard car.

Fortunately for [ch00ftech], the team-building Derby sponsored by his employer is a little looser with the rules than the usual event. Loose enough perhaps to try a magnetically levitating car. The aluminum track provided a perfect surface to leverage Lenz’s Law. [ch00ftech] tried different arrangements of coils and drivers in an attempt to at least reduce the friction between car and track, if not outright levitate it. Sadly, time ran out and physics had others ideas, so [ch00ftech], intent on cheating by any means, tried spoofing the track timing system with a ridiculous front bumper of IR LEDs. But even that didn’t work in the end, and poor [ch00f]’s car wound up in sixth place.

So what could [ch00ftech] had done better? Was he on the right course with levitation? Or was spoofing the sensors likely to have worked with better optics? Or should he have resorted to jet propulsion or a propeller drive? How would you cheat at the Pinewood Derby?


2013-09-05-Hackaday-Fail-tips-tileFail of the Week is a Hackaday column which celebrates failure as a learning tool. Help keep the fun rolling by writing about your own failures and sending us a link to the story — or sending in links to fail write ups you find in your Internet travels.

The Hoverboard You Can Build At Home

Press embargoes lifted today, heralding the announcement of the world’s first hoverboard. Yes, the hovering skateboard from Back to the Future. It’s called the Hendo hoverboard, it’s apparently real, and you can buy one for $10,000. If that’s too rich for your blood, you can spend $900 for a ‘technology demonstrator’ – a remote-controlled hovering box powered by the same technology.

Of course the world’s first hoverboard is announced to the world as a crowd funding campaign, so before we get to how this thing is supposed to work, we’ll have to do our due diligence. The company behind this campaign, Arx Pax Labs, Inc, exists, as does the founder. All the relevant business registration, biographical information, and experience of the founder and employees of Arx Pax check out to my satisfaction. In fact, at least one employee has work experience with the innards of electric motors. At first glance, the company itself is actually legit.

The campaign is for a BttF-style hoverboard, but this is really only a marketing strategy for Arx Pax; the hoverboards themselves are admittedly loss leaders even at $10,000 – the main goal of this Kickstarter is simply to get media attention to the magnetic levitation technology found in the hoverboard. All of this was carefully orchestrated, with a ‘huge event’ to be held exactly one year from today demonstrating a real, working hoverboard. What’s so special about demoing a hoverboard on October 21, 2015?

next year

I defy anyone to come up with a better marketing campaign than this.

The meat of the story comes from what has until now been a scientific curiosity. Everyone reading this has no doubt seen superconductors levitated off a bed of magnets, and demonstrations of eddy currents are really just something cool you can do with a rare earth magnet and a copper pipe. What [Greg Henderson] and Arx Pax have done is take these phenomena and turned them into a platform for magnetic levitation.

According to the patent, the magnetic levitation system found in the Hendo hoverboard works like this:

  • One or more electric motors spin a series of rotors consisting of an arrangement of strong permanent magnets.
  • The magnets are arranged in a Halbach array that enhances the magnetic field on one side of the array, and cancels it on the other.
  • By placing the rotors over a conductive, non-ferrous surface – a sheet of copper or aluminum, for example – eddy currents are induced in the conductive surface.
  • These eddy currents create a magnetic field that opposes the magnetic field that created it, causing the entire device to levitate.

hoverboard

That’s it. That’s how you create a real, working hoverboard. Arx Pax has also developed a method to control a vehicle equipped with a few of these hover disks; the $900 ‘Whitebox’ technology demonstrator includes a smart phone app as a remote control.

If you’re still sitting in a steaming pile of incredulity concerning this invention, you’re in good company. It’s a fine line between being blinded by brilliance and baffled by bullshit, so we’re leaving this one up to you: build one of these devices, put it up on hackaday.io, and we’ll make it worth your while. We’re giving away some gift cards to the Hackaday store for the first person to build one of these hoverboards, preferably with a cool body kit. The Star Wars landspeeder has already been done, but the snowspeeder hasn’t. Surprise us.

Prototyping a Maglev train using LEGO

lego-maglev

Serious research using not-so-serious equipment? We don’t know about that. What’s wrong with using LEGO as a research platform for a Maglev? This team has been doing so for quite some time and with great results.

A Maglev is a vehicle based on the principles of magnetic levitation. Similar poles of magnets repel each other and this concept can be used to create a friction-less track system. But this raises the problems of braking and locomotion. The build log linked above covers the conception in what is the eighth iteration of the research project. But the video below offers the most concise explanation of their approach to these issues.

The researchers are using magnets positioned in trench of the track as a kind of magnetic gear to push against. A series of electromagnets on the Lego vehicle ride in that track. The can be energized, working as a linear motor to push against those permanent magnets. But how do you know which direction of travel this will cause? That problem was solved by adding a hall effect sensor between each electromagnet. Before switching on the coil the hall effect sensors are polled and a timing scheme is selected based on their value. This is used to push the train up to speed, as well as slow it down for braking.

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