The great maglev train giveaway

NAGOYA-The construction of a superfast train line between Tokyo and the central city of Nagoya is set to start this fall, and the company behind the project is stepping up efforts to export the technology as well. In fact, it wants to give it away.
JR Tokai, the railway operator serving central Japan, plans to cut the ribbon for the new line in 2027. The maglev train, levitated by powerful electromagnets rather than running on wheels, will be capable of speeds up to 500kph. It will zip between 
Tokyo and Nagoya in about 40 minutes, compared with roughly 100 minutes on today's bullet trains.

     One of the biggest challenges is the cost. The total outlay for technological development is estimated at 550 billion yen ($5.35 billion). Construction is projected to cost 5.4 trillion yen.

     But JR Tokai sees a chance to keep those costs in check -- if it can persuade the U.S. to adopt the technology for a proposed high-speed line connecting Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Eventually, the line could be extended up to Boston, spanning some 730km. JR Tokai expects 

the economy-of-scale benefits to be so significant that it has offered to hand over the technology with no license fee.

     A maglev line on the U.S. East Coast could also lead to other international opportunities.

Superconductivity secrets

JR Tokai became serious about maglev development in 1987. Some mechanisms, and even the identities of project participants, remain shrouded in secrecy.     

     Currently, JR Tokai is conducting trial runs on its Yamanashi Maglev Test Line in Yamanashi Prefecture. The train itself, called the L0 Series, is in a seven-car formation.

     How does it work?

     The maglev system uses electromagnetic suspension to float about 10cm over a guideway. The train cars are equipped with superconducting magnets; the walls of the guideway contain metal coils. 

     This is all based on the basic principle of magnets -- that opposite poles attract and matching ones repel each other. The magnets on the train's undercarriage interact with the guideway coils, lifting the cars and pushing them along at incredible speed. 

Superconductivity is what makes this feasible. Normally, electromagnets create a magnetic field only when supplied with a current of power. But when electric coils and wires are cooled to minus 269 C, they become superconductors. This means they allow electricity to flow with no resistance. Theoretically, an electric current can move through a loop of superconducting wire indefinitely with no power source, generating a strong magnetic field in the process.

     In JR Tokai's system, the magnets on the train are kept in a superconductive state while the voltage to the guideway coils is adjusted to enable acceleration or deceleration. The company describes the undercarriage magnets as "coils in large thermoses," which are filled with liquid helium chilled to the magic temperature of minus 269 C. As the helium evaporates, it is liquefied again and reused.

     This propulsion system has the muscle to push the train up a 40-meter slope within 1,000 meters.

     In the early years, however, the project was plagued by a phenomenon called quench. This means a coil loses its superconducting power and returns to a normal resistive state, killing the magnetic field. The cause: heat generated by high-speed movement. Quench prevented stable operation of the train until JR Tokai found a solution, and the fix remains top secret. All JR Tokai has said is: "We have made the system's structure more robust," as Noriyuki Shirakuni, head of the maglev system development department, put it.

     That is not the only closely guarded information.

     The train cars are manufactured by Nippon Sharyo, a JR Tokai subsidiary, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. But the names of other companies involved in making various components, including the magnets, have not been disclosed.

     Toshiba and a few partners built the original test line in Yamanashi. But the line was later extended, and JR Tokai would not divulge whether these same companies handled that job, too.

Go on, take it

Given all this secretiveness, it seems a little odd that the company would just hand over the technology. Yet that is exactly what JR Tokai is trying to do. Koei Tsuge, the company's president, has said the U.S. would not have to pay for the proprietary technology, even though licensing income would help to offset the hefty development cost.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan.

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