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Build a Floating Train

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Difficulty
Time Required Average (6-10 days)
Prerequisites None
Material Availability This project requires the Magic Bullet Train kit, available from the Science Buddies Store. Estimated time required includes shipping for the kit.
Cost Low ($20 - $50)
Safety Keep magnets away from small children and pets who might swallow them.

Abstract

How can you make a train without wheels? By using magnets! In this project you will build a magnetic levitation ("maglev" for short) train that floats above a magnetic track. How much weight can you add to the train before it sinks down and touches the track?

Objective

Measure how the distance between a levitating train and the tracks changes as you add weight to the train.

Credits

Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies

Cite This Page

MLA Style

Finio, Ben. "The Amazing Floating Train: How Much Weight Can A Maglev Train Hold?" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 5 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Jan. 2017 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Phys_p093.shtml>

APA Style

Finio, B. (2017, January 5). The Amazing Floating Train: How Much Weight Can A Maglev Train Hold?. Retrieved January 20, 2017 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Phys_p093.shtml

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Last edit date: 2017-01-05

Introduction

Does a train without wheels sound crazy? How could a train possibly move along the tracks without wheels? Trains that hover just above the tracks are actually possible due to magnetic levitation, or maglev for short. These trains use powerful magnets to stay in the air. Magnets generate a magnetic field. This magnetic field can push or pull on other nearby magnets, or generate a force. Whether the magnets push or pull depends on the direction in which the magnetic poles are facing (see the Electricity, Magnetism, & Electromagnetism Tutorial to learn more).

In the case of a maglev train, this magnetic force is used to push against the train's weight. Weight is the force that pulls an object down toward the earth because of gravity. If the magnetic force is strong enough, it can overcome the train's weight and push it up into the air! Figure 1 shows a diagram of the forces acting on the maglev train that you will build in this project.

maglev train kit cross section diagram
Figure 1. A cross-sectional diagram of the maglev train. The train has two magnets on the bottom of it. These magnets push against two magnets that form the tracks. If the force from the magnets is strong enough, the train will float in the air above the tracks.

In this project you will add weights to your train and measure the distance between the bottom of the train and the tracks. What happens when you add weight to the train? Will it still levitate? Try this project to find out!

Terms and Concepts

  • Magnetic levitation
  • Maglev
  • Magnets
  • Magnetic field
  • Force
  • Magnetic poles
  • Weight
  • Gravity
  • Mass
  • Grams

Questions

  • What is a magnet?
  • What are some different kinds of magnets?
  • What determines whether a magnet pushes or pulls on another magnet?
  • How does magnetic force change with distance?

Bibliography

For help creating graphs, try this website:

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Materials and Equipment Product Kit Available

  • Maglev Train kit; you will need these parts from the kit:
    • Long magnet strips (2)
    • Short magnet strips (2)
    • Plastic angle guides (2)
    • Wood block
    • Cardboard box

You will also need the following items, not included in the kit:

  • Clear double-sided tape
  • Scissors
  • Paper or plastic cup
  • Coins
  • Ruler
  • Kitchen scale
  • Lab notebook

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Experimental Procedure

  1. Assemble your maglev train by following along with this video:

Assembly instructions for your maglev train.
Assembly instructions for your maglev train. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQH2UhHss6c
  1. Create a data table in your lab notebook, like Table 1.
    1. Note: Most kitchen scales display results in units of ounces or grams. In the metric system, scientists use grams (g), which are technically a unit of mass, not weight. Make sure you refer to "mass" and measure in grams when you do a science project. It is incorrect to say "weight in grams."
Mass (g) Distance (mm)
  
  
  
Table 1. An example data table.
  1. Make sure your train is floating parallel to the tracks, and not crooked or with one of the train's magnets touching the tracks, as shown in Figure 2. If necessary, adjust the spacing of your plastic angle pieces or of the magnet strips to get your train to balance. For example, move the plastic angles closer together so the train cannot tip over. The train will also be more stable if the magnet rails on the track are slightly closer together than the magnet strips on the train.
maglev train floating parallel to tracks
Figure 2. Make sure your train floats parallel to the tracks (image on the left), and does not tilt or touch the tracks (image on the right).
  1. Use a ruler to measure the distance between the train and the track (between the top of the magnet strips on the track and the bottom of the magnet strips on the train), as shown in Figure 3. Record this value in your data table and write "0" in the mass column, since you have not added any weight to the train yet.
measuring maglev train hovering gap with a ruler
Figure 3. Use a ruler to measure the distance between the train and the track.
  1. Now, place a paper or plastic cup on top of the train and add some coins to it, as shown in Figure 4. Make sure the cup is centered on the train so it remains parallel to the tracks and does not tilt, as shown in Figure 5.
maglev train with coins added as weights
Figure 4. Train with weights added on top.

balancing maglev train kit
Figure 5. Check the train from both the front and the side to make sure it is still floating parallel to the track, as shown in the left two images. If the train is tilted, like in either of the right two images, then shift the location of the cup to balance the train.
  1. Measure the new distance between the train and the tracks. Record this distance in your data table.
  2. Use a kitchen scale to measure the mass of the coins, including the cup. Record this mass next to the new distance in your data table.
  3. Add more coins to the cup. Repeat steps 5–7.
  4. Continue repeating steps 5–8 until the train touches the tracks (the distance is zero).
  5. Repeat the entire experiment two more times, for a total of three trials. For each trial, make a new data table, empty the cup, and start over again with no weight added to the train.
  6. Make a scatterplot of your data, with added mass on the horizontal (x) axis and distance on the vertical (y) axis.
  7. Analyze your results.
    1. How does the distance between the train and the tracks change as you add weight to the train?
    2. How do your results compare to your prediction?
    3. How can you connect your results to real-world maglev trains? For example, would there be a limit to how many passengers a real-world train can carry?

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Variations

  • Do your results change if you distribute the weight of the coins evenly across the top of the train, instead of piling them all into one central cup?
  • Use something lighter than the wood block as the "train," like a flat piece of cardboard. How much higher does the train float? Note that to compare your results using the wood block, you would need to measure the absolute weight of the train (including the body of the train and the magnets), not just the added weight.

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The Ask an Expert Forum is intended to be a place where students can go to find answers to science questions that they have been unable to find using other resources. If you have specific questions about your science fair project or science fair, our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.

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