Maglev – is it really the solution for Hyperloop?

Maglev – is it really the solution for Hyperloop?

February 3, 2019 2 By admin

For 70 years, maglev has been seen as ‘the transportation of the future’ and has attracted considerable research investment. It seems the logical choice for the high speeds required by Hyperloop. But, despite trying many different technologies, there have been no commercially successful projects. Maglev suffers high construction costs due to the need for powered copper coils along the full length of the track. Energy consumption is high, due to the inefficiency (due to the large air-gaps) of the linear motors compared to conventional electric motors.

We hope that future research can overcome the technical challenges and provide a good system for Hyperloop. But we also hope that Hyperloop researchers are considering other alternatives, in case maglev proves impractical, as it was the case with air bearings initially proposed by Elon Musk.

The Chinese Transrapid is the world’s only high-speed maglev system in passenger service, in Shanghai, China. It runs at 430 km/h over a 30 km track. It was completed in 2004, but no other systems were built, and the German company that designed it, Transrapid, closed in 2008. The train runs well, but suffered from prohibitive  construction costs. It has high energy costs, said to be due to inefficient traction, rather than maglev itself. (19.9 kWh per seat 100km, vs 7.7 for high-speed-rail). 

The Japanese SCMaglev is a research project that has been running for nearly 50 years. No commercial services have ever been built, but there have always been claims that construction will start ‘soon’. The performance of the maglev test train is impressive, with a top speed of 603 km/h, but technical development seems to have stalled. Energy figures have never been published, but the Japanese media claim that it uses 4 – 5 time the energy of the Shinkansen high-speed-rail.

Inductrack is a simpler system, using permanent magnets in the vehicle. The main research started about 20 years ago, but was only tested at low speed. The track would have high costs with copper coils for the full length, and energy efficiency will be a challenge like other maglev systems. Inductrack got licensed by HTT which currently holds exclusive rights for the technology.