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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth


An impromptu experiment involving the blue and white maglev train car on the Old Dominion University campus has shown that the vehicle can be levitated and moved smoothly along its track.

The test affirmed successful laboratory experiments, which were reported in August by Thomas Alberts, the ODU professor of aerospace engineering who leads the maglev research team. In those experiments, a re-engineered model of the original train car's undercarriage accomplished sustained and reliable levitation.

Because of a construction project on the campus, the engineers were faced in October with a required move of the train car, which has been parked for most of the last four years on its elevated track. The engineers, took advantage of the window of opportunity before the move, transferred some of their technology upgrades from the laboratory to the train car, and were able to repeat their laboratory success.

The car was levitated and, with the help of a slight decline in the track, the engineers were able to move it over a short distance. Alberts reported that the movement was completely smooth, not bumpy like the ride during the original trials.

The maglev advances developed by the ODU research team included several changes to reduce the electrical noise in the system. Also, a decentralized magnet control system was designed and additional sensors were added to keep levitation steady.

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

The train car's two undercarriages were built with a centralized control system for the six magnets installed in each. The new scheme has the same type and number of magnets, but each magnet reacts independently to data it receives from its own sensors.

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 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 state of Virginia also provided financial support, and the partners hoped to see the development of a small, dependable and low-cost version of the expensive maglev projects that have been built elsewhere in the world. These other projects involve technology that can require a cost per maglev-track mile of $100 million. 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 supposed 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, ODU President Roseann 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.

In August, when the successful levitation in the laboratory was reported, Jeremiah Creedon, the university's director of transportation research, said, "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."

That prediction has come true. More extensive tests are expected next year after campus construction restrictions are removed and the engineers can again use the elevated track.

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