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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 Magnetic Levitation Train Kit, available from our partner Home Science Tools. 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, 16 Oct. 2017. Web. 22 Nov. 2017 <https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Phys_p093/physics/maglev-train-weight>

APA Style

Finio, B. (2017, October 16). The Amazing Floating Train: How Much Weight Can A Maglev Train Hold?. Retrieved November 22, 2017 from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Phys_p093/physics/maglev-train-weight

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Last edit date: 2017-10-16

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

These items may be purchased in a Magnetic Levitation Train Kit from our partner Home Science Tools. 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
  • Pencil
  • Paper or plastic cup
  • Coins
  • Ruler
  • Kitchen scale
  • Lab notebook
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Experimental Procedure

Building Your Train

  1. Peel the paper backing off the two short magnetic strips and attach them to one side of the wooden block, as shown in Figure 2. The edges of the strips should line up with the edges of the block. This block will be your train car.
Magnetic strips on the wooden block
Figure 2. Magnetic strips attached to the wooden block.
  1. Cut one of the long sides off your cardboard box. This will serve as the base for your train track.
  2. Using one of the long plastic angle pieces as a straightedge, draw five lines lengthwise on the piece of cardboard as shown in Figure 3.
    1. Draw a center line down the middle of the cardboard.
    2. Draw one line 5 mm to each side of the centerline.
    3. Draw one line 20 mm to each side of the centerline.
Dimensions for lines on the piece of cardboard
Figure 3. Dimensions for lines you will draw on your piece of cardboard.
  1. Attach the long magnetic strips and plastic angle pieces to your cardboard, as shown in Figures 4 and 5. Pay close attention to the spacing, it is important for getting your train to work properly.
    1. Peel the paper backing off the long magnetic strips. Carefully place them on the cardboard so their inside edges line up with the lines 5 mm from your centerline, so the strips are 10 mm apart.
    2. Use double-sided tape to attach the plastic angle pieces to the cardboard so their inside edges line up with the lines 20 mm from your centerline, so they are 40 mm apart.
Spacing for the magnet rails and plastic angles
Figure 4. Cross-sectional view of the spacing for the magnet strips and plastic angle pieces.

Completed maglev train track
Figure 5. Picture of a completed track.
  1. Place your train on the track with the magnetic strips facing down. It should hover parallel to the tracks as shown in Figure 6, and you should be able to slide it back and forth without getting stuck. If your train does not hover as shown in Figure 6, see the FAQ for troubleshooting information.
Maglev train floating parallel to tracks
Figure 6. Train hovering parallel to the tracks.

Collecting Your Data

  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. 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 7. 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 7. 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 8. Make sure the cup is centered on the train so it remains parallel to the tracks and does not tilt, as shown in Figure 9.
maglev train with coins added as weights
Figure 8. Train with weights added on top.

balancing maglev train kit
Figure 9. 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 3–5 until the train touches the tracks (the distances is zero). Remember to measure and record the distance each time you add coins.
  4. 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.
  5. Make a scatterplot of your data, with added mass on the horizontal (x) axis and distance on the vertical (y) axis.
  6. 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?

Troubleshooting

For troubleshooting tips, please read our FAQ: The Amazing Floating Train: How Much Weight Can A Maglev Train Hold?.

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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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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

If you are having trouble with this project, please read the FAQ below. You may find the answer to your question.
Q: One edge of my train car is touching the tracks. What is wrong?
A: If your train is tilted like in Figure 10, so one edge touches the tracks, your plastic angle pieces are probably too far apart. It is important for the plastic angle pieces to be spaced just barely farther apart than the width of the wooden block (about 40 mm). This will allow the block to slide back and forth without getting stuck, but also help keep it vertical. If there is too much extra space, the block can tip over. If this happens, move your plastic angle pieces closer together.

One edge of the train car touching the tracks
Figure 10. The plastic angle pieces on this track are too far apart, allowing the wooden block to tip over.
Q: It looks like my train is attracted to the tracks instead of repelled. What is wrong?
A: If your train car is sitting flat on the tracks (the magnet strips are touching each other), there are several possibilities. Work through these steps in order to find out what to do.
  1. The magnetic strips on your track might be too close together, like in Figure 11. As shown in Figure 4 of the procedure, the strips should be 10 mm apart. If they are too close together, then they will not be aligned with the magnetic strips on the train car, and this can result in the car being attracted to the tracks instead of repelled. If this happens, move the magnetic strips on your track farther apart.
Cross sectional view of the train when the magnetic strips are too close together.
Figure 11. The magnetic strips on this track are too close together, resulting in the train being attracted to the track instead of repelled.
  1. Your plastic angle pieces might be too far apart, like in Figure 12. This gives the train car too much room to shift side to side, and it can be pulled down to the tracks instead of repelled. As shown in Figure 4 of the procedure, the inside edges of the plastic angle pieces should be 40 mm apart. This gives the wooden block enough space to slide back and forth without getting stuck, but prevents it from moving side-to-side. If this happens, move the plastic angle pieces on your track closer together.
Cross sectional view of the train when the plastic angle pieces are too far apart.
Figure 12. The plastic angle pieces on this track are too far apart, allowing the train car to shift sideways and be attracted to the track instead of repelled.
  1. The final and least likely possibility is that the polarization (which way the north and south poles face) of one set of your magnetic strips has been reversed, meaning the non-adhesive sides of the strips are attracted to each other instead of repelled. If the magnetic strips are touching each other and their edges are aligned like in Figure 13, you will need to repolarize two of your strips as described in the following steps. Only do this after you have tried steps 1 and 2 to make sure your spacing is correct.
Cross sectional view of the train when the magnetic strips are polarized the wrong way.
Figure 13. These magnetic strips are attracted to each other instead of repelled, so the train sits flat on the tracks with the strips aligned.
  1. Your kit comes with a compass. Hold the compass up to one of the magnetic strips on your train car as shown in Figure 14. Pay close attention to whether the red tip of the compass needle points towards or away from the magnetic strip.
Compass pointing at magnetic strip
Figure 14. The red tip of the compass needle points towards the magnetic strip in this image (your result may be the opposite). Ignore the N/S/E/W markings on the compass, you only need to look at the needle.
  1. Do the same thing for one of the magnetic strips on your train track.
    1. If your results are the same for both strips (the red needle tip points towards both of them, or points away from both of them), then your strips are polarized correctly and should repel each other. Go back to steps 1 and 2 to check the alignment of your track.
    2. If your results are different for both strips (the red needle tip points towards one of the strips, but away from the other one), then you need to re-polarize one set of your strips. Proceed to step 6.
  2. Your kit contains a small cylindrical neodymium magnet. This magnet is strong enough to re-polarize the magnetic strips by rubbing it against them, as shown in Figure 15. To do this:
    1. Check again whether the magnetic strips on your train car attract or repel the red tip of the compass needle.
    2. Find the end of the neodymium magnet that attracts the same end of the compass needle as the magnetic strip on the train car.
    3. Slowly rub this end of the magnet along the entire magnetic strip, going back and forth several times to cover its entire width (the neodymium magnet is narrower than the strip).
    4. Do this for both magnetic strips on your train car.
    5. Place your train car on the track and see if it hovers instead of touching the track. If not, you may need to keep rubbing the same end of the neodymium magnet along the car's strips to increase their strength (do not re-check the strips with the compass each time, or you will continue to reverse their polarization).
    6. If you still cannot get your maglev train to work properly, contact us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org for support.
Repolarizing magnetic strips with neodymium magnet
Figure 15. Rub the neodymium magnet along the magnetic strip to repolarize it.

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