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Magnetically Levitated Trains
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985. What is the physical nature of magnetism? Is it a wave or particle phenomenon or an undefined energy like gravity? — GA, Paisley, Scotland
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Magnetism is one sector of the electromagnetic interactions of matter. From a classical perspective, magnetism consists of an energy-containing field that surrounds magnetic poles and that exerts forces on other magnetic poles. At a higher classical level, magnetism and magnetic fields are part of the full electromagnetic interaction, meaning that they are inextricably mixed with electricity and electric fields. Finally, from a full quantum mechanical perspective, magnetism is associated with energy-containing quantum fields, the fields of quantum electrodynamics, that govern the electric and magnetic interactions of matter. These quantum electrodynamic interactions are mediated by virtual photons, cousins of the real photons that include light and radio waves. From this quantum viewpoint, magnets interact with one another by exchanging virtual photons and, like all quantum objects, these photons are emitted and absorbed like particles but travel as waves. Thus magnetism is both a wave and particle phenomenon. It isn't undefined at all; in fact, quantum electrodynamics is probably the most well-established and precise theory in modern physics.

1012. What is a superconducting magnet? — JS, Montreal, Quebec
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Electric currents are magnetic. That's the basis for electromagnets—if you run an electric current around a coil of wire, that coil of wire will develop a north magnetic pole at one end and a south magnetic pole at the other end. But an electromagnet made with normal copper wires consumes electric power all the time. The current passing through those wires wastes energy because of friction-like effects in the copper and the wires become hot. The electromagnet also needs a power source to keep its current flowing.

However, a superconducting electromagnet is one in which the wires are superconducting—the current passing through them doesn't waste any power. Once a current has been started in a coil of superconducting wire, it flows forever. Since it doesn't waste any power, that current needs no source of power and produces no thermal energy. In fact, you can buy superconducting magnets with the current already started at the factory. As long as the wires are kept cold (as they must be to remain superconducting), the current will continue to flow and the coil will remain magnetic forever.


1013. What would be a legitimate form of propulsion for magnetic trains? — DS, Kenton, OH and MB, Willows, CA
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The most sensible propulsion system for a magnetically levitated train would be a linear electric motor. This motor would consist of electromagnets on the train and electromagnets on the track. By turning these electromagnets on and off at carefully chosen moments, they can be used to pull or push the train forward for propulsion or backward for breaking. The timing is important because, for propulsion, the magnet on the train must always be attracted toward the track magnet in front of it and repelled by the track magnet behind it. For breaking, this relationship must be reversed.

1048. What is a magnet?
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A magnet is an object that has magnetic poles and therefore exerts forces or torques (twists) on other magnets. There are two types of these magnetic poles—called, for historical reasons, north and south. Like poles repel (north repels north and south repels south) while opposite poles attract (north attracts south). Since isolated north and south magnetic poles have never been found in nature, magnets always have equal amounts of north and south magnetic poles, making them magnetically neutral overall. In a permanent magnet, the magnetism originates in the electrons from which the magnet is formed. Electrons are intrinsically magnetic, each with its own north and south magnetic poles, and they give the permanent magnet its overall north and south poles.

1072. How fast can maglev trains travel? — AP
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As long as the track is straight enough that the train doesn't experience severe accelerations up, down, left, or right, there is no limit to how fast it can go. In fact, the levitation process becomes more and more energy efficient as the speed increases. However, the moving train does experience a pressure drag force (a type of air resistance) that increases roughly as the square of the train's speed. The power needed to overcome this drag force increases as the cube of the train's speed, making it impractical to propel the train forward above a certain speed.

1107. How does a rail gun work?
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A rail gun is a device that uses an electromagnetic force to accelerate a projectile to very high speeds. This acceleration technique is based on the fact that whenever an electrically charged particle moves in the presence of a magnetic field, it experiences a force that pushes it perpendicular to both its direction of travel and the magnetic field. In a rail gun, this perpendicular magnetic force—known as the Lorentz force—pushes the projectile along two metal rails and can accelerate it to almost limitless speeds.

The rail gun's projectile must conduct electricity and it completes the electric circuit formed by two parallel metal rails and a high current power source. During the rail gun's operation, current flows out of the power source through one rail, passes through the projectile, and returns to the power source through the other rail. As it passes through the two rails, the electric current produces an intense magnetic field between the rails. The projectile is exposed to this magnetic field and as charged particles pass through the projectile, they experience a Lorentz force that pushes them and the projectile in one direction along the rails. The projectile picks up speed as it travels along the rails and doesn't stop accelerating until the current ceases or it leaves the rails. In practice, the power sources used in most rail guns is a large bank of capacitors. These devices store separated electric charge and supply enormous currents to the rails for a brief period of time.


1233. I've used metal detectors that only pick up gold signals. How does that work? — MB
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While metal detectors can easily distinguish between ferromagnetic metals such as steel and non-ferromagnetic metals such as aluminum, gold, silver, and copper, it is difficult for them to distinguish between the particular members of those two classes. Ferromagnetic metals are ones that have intrinsic magnetic structure and respond very strongly to outside magnetic fields. The non-ferromagnetic metals have no intrinsic magnetic structure but can be made magnetic when electric currents are driven through them.

Good metal detectors produce electromagnetic fields that cause currents to flow through nearby metal objects and then detect the magnetism that results. Unfortunately, identifying what type of non-ferromagnetic metal is responding to a metal detector is hard. Mark Rowan, Chief Engineer at White's Electronics of Sweet Home, Oregon, a manufacturer of consumer metal detecting equipment, notes that their detectors are able to classify non-ferromagnetic metal objects based on the ratio of an object's inductance to its resistivity. They can reliably distinguish between all denominations of U.S. coins—for example, nickels are relatively more resistive than copper and clad coins, and quarters are more inductive than smaller dimes. The primary mechanism they use in these measurements is to look at the phase shift between transmitted and received signals (signals typically at, or slightly above, audio frequencies). However, they are unable to identify objects like gold nuggets where the size, shape, and alloy composition are unknown.


1343. Is it possible to create a magnet with more north poles than south poles? — GS
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Yes, but only if some of the poles are weaker than other so that when you sum up the total north pole strength and the total south pole strength, those two sums are equal. For example, you can make a magnet that has two north poles and one south pole if the north poles are each half as strong as the south pole. All magnets that we know of have exactly equal amounts of north and south pole. That's because we have never observed a pure north or a pure south pole in nature and you'd need such a pure north or south pole to unbalance the poles of a magnet. A

The absence of such "monopoles" is an interesting puzzle and scientists haven't given up hope of finding them. Some theories predict that they should exist, but be very difficult to form artificially. There may be magnetic monopoles left over from the big bang, but we haven't found any yet.


1360. Are all metals magnetically charged?
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First, magnets don't involve charges, they involve poles. So the question should probably be "are all metals magnetically poled?" The answer to this question is that they are never poled—they never have a net pole. They always have an even balance of north and south pole. However, there are some metals that have their north and south poles separated from one another. A magnetized piece of steel is that way. Only a few metals can support such separated poles and we will study those metals in a few weeks.

1361. If the train track gets bumpier in effect with increasing speed, why is it that your car bumps less when you go over a speed bump fast instead of slow?
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Actually, if you drive fast over a real speed bump, it's not good for your wheels and suspension. The springs in your car do protect the car from some of the effects of the bump, but not all of them. However, imagine driving over a speed bump on a traditional bicycle—one that has no spring suspension. The faster you drive over that bump, the more it will throw you into the air.

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