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Engineers at Old Dominion University have unveiled a new approach to levitating a maglev undercarriage designed to overcome fundamental problems of the "magnetic levitation" train car installed on an elevated campus railway four years ago.

The undercarriage, which the engineers call a "bogie," is accomplishing sustained and reliable levitation after being outfitted with a newly engineered decentralized magnet control system. A computer with new programming drives the control system and this latest design employs additional sensors and some custom-built components.

The engineers said concerted efforts to reduce the electrical "noise" in the system, including tweaks to certain electronics components-one as simple as doubling the insulation wrapped around wires-have minimized the electrical buzz that plagued the sensor-controlled operations of the original maglev vehicle.

These changes have allowed the control system to perform effectively without the vibrations that gave the original vehicle a bumpy ride, and made it inoperable as a people mover.

"This truly is a story of the little engine that could," said ODU President Roseann Runte. "The university community is proud of the work done by our engineers to bring this project along."

Two dozen of ODU's top research faculty, administrators and representatives of the university's Research Foundation and Board of Visitors saw a demonstration of the levitating bogie in an engineering laboratory on Friday, Aug. 4. The presentation was presided over by Thomas Alberts, professor of aerospace engineering. Alberts and other maglev team members have spent much of the past three years working on maglev technology, sometimes volunteering their time because of a lack of funding.

"We don't want to get ahead of ourselves. This is a research project, and while this is a significant milestone, it is not yet a vehicle levitating on the track running across the campus," said Jeremiah Creedon, the University's Director of Transportation Research. "But we have developed procedures that work in the lab and are expected to be the basis of a system that will work on the track."

The 2-ton bogie was built in the ODU laboratory to the dimensions of an undercarriage of the original maglev at ODU. The 45-foot-long, 100-seat passenger compartment of the maglev vehicle rests on one undercarriage in the front and a second in the rear. Alberts and Creedon said the project's next step would be to move the bogie from lab to railway and test it for levitation and propulsion.

The blue and white, futuristic looking train car came to be as the result of a $14-million pilot project of American Maglev Technology (AMT), Lockheed Martin Corp. and other industry participants. The federal government and the state of Virginia provided financial support in hopes of seeing a small, dependable and low-cost version of the extraordinarily expensive maglev projects elsewhere in the world.
These other projects involve technology that usually requires a cost per mile of $100 million for a maglev train line. The technology involved on the maglev at ODU is designed to work out to a lower installation cost, perhaps as low as about $20 million a mile.

ODU agreed to allow an elevated track, about 8-tenths of a mile long, to be built across its campus to showcase AMT's maglev. Levitated and propelled by electro-magnetic energy, the train car was designed to race across the campus at 40 miles per hour, essentially floating a half-inch or so above its railway. The train was built at an AMT facility in Florida and transported to Norfolk for test runs in the summer of 2002. Ride-quality problems could not be quickly solved, and by October 2002 the maglev project became mired in funding disputes and disagreements between partners. Engineers declared that refinements needed to be made to the vehicle's complex control system, but the original project was out of money.

The Federal Railway Administration (FRA) offered up $2 million more in maglev funding in 2003 to continue the work. As part of that effort Runte challenged the university's engineers to undertake a maglev research project that could advance maglev technology, and possibly revive the campus train

When the FRA effort was concluded, ODU administrators opted not to hold AMT to its contractual requirement to remove the elevated concrete railway and train car, and the university's Office of Research anted up $94,000 more earlier this year to keep an ODU project going.

Alberts said the original maglev undercarriages had a centralized control system for the six magnets installed in each. The new bogie has the same type and number of magnets, but each magnet reacts independently to data it receives from its own sensors. Also, the bogie's array of sensors has been expanded and updated.

This maglev technology involves magnets on the train's undercarriage that are attracted to the track, or guideway, levitating each train car. Once floating on air the maglev vehicle is pulled along the track by more magnetic fields.

For several reasons, including track imperfections and vibrations of vehicle or track, the levitation needs to be constantly adjusted to maintain a stable floating-on-air ride. The adjustments are made by a control system that depends on signals from several sensors to raise or lower the electrical energy flowing to the magnets.

The original maglev vehicle at ODU moved in bumps and starts because its centralized control system did not work properly in the presence of an overwhelming buzz of electrical and magnetic "noise," Alberts said.

This article was posted on: August 15, 2006

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