Stop the Train! Magnetic Brakes for a Maglev Train
|Time Required||Very Short (≤ 1 day)|
|Material Availability||This project requires the Magnetic Levitation Train Kit, available from our partner Home Science Tools.|
|Cost||Low ($20 - $50)|
|Safety||Keep magnets away from small children and pets who might swallow them.|
AbstractDid you know that you can use magnets to build a train that floats above its tracks? In this project, you will also use magnets to make the train stop, preventing it from crashing into the end of the track. Will adding more magnets help the train stop sooner?
Measure how the number of magnet "brakes" changes the stopping distance for a train sliding down a hill.
Cite This PageGeneral citation information is provided here. Be sure to check the formatting, including capitalization, for the method you are using and update your citation, as needed.
Last edit date: 2018-04-26
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, the magnets are placed such that this magnetic force is used to push against the train's weight. Weight is the force that pulls an object down toward 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.
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 build a maglev train with an added challenge, making the train stop when it reaches the end of the track. You will tilt the track at an angle so the train can slide down a hill. You will put a magnet on the end of the train, and build a magnetic "stopper" to prevent the train from sliding off the end of the track without crashing. Will adding more magnets to the stopper help the train stop earlier? Try this project to find out!
Terms and Concepts
- Magnetic levitation
- Magnetic field
- Magnetic poles
- What is a magnet?
- What are some different kinds of magnets?
- What are magnetic poles?
- When does a magnet push (repel) or pull (attract) on another magnet?
- How does magnetic force change with distance? In other words, if you increase the distance between magnets, will they attract (or repel) each other more, or less?
- Science Buddies. (2015, March 14). Electricity, Magnetism, & Electromagnetism Tutorial. Retrieved March 4, 2016 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/electricity-magnetism-electromagnetism-tutorial
- Rader, A. (n.d.). Electricity & Magnetism: Magnets. Physics4kids.com. Retrieved March 4, 2016 from http://www.physics4kids.com/files/elec_magnets.html
- Bosnor, K. (n.d.). How Maglev Trains Work. HowStuffWorks. Retrieved March 4, 2016 from http://science.howstuffworks.com/transport/engines-equipment/maglev-train.htm
For help creating graphs, try this website:
- National Center for Education Statistics, (n.d.). Create a Graph. Retrieved June 2, 2009, from http://nces.ed.gov/nceskids/createagraph/
News Feed on This Topic
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)
- Rectangular magnets (5)
- Wood block
- Cardboard box
You will also need the following items, not included in the kit:
- Clear tape
- Clear double-sided tape
- Double-sided foam tape
- Several books
- Lab notebook
Recommended Project Supplies
Remember Your Display Board Supplies
Poster Making Kit
ArtSkills Trifold with Header
Building Your Train
This video and the following written instructions will show you how to assemble your train. Note that it may require some adjustments to get your train to hover as shown in the video. See the FAQ if you have trouble getting your train to work.
- 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 edge of the block. This block will be your train car. Note: if the magnetic strips are not sticky enough to stick to the wood on their own, use clear double-sided tape.
Figure 2. Magnetic strips attached to the wooden block.
- Cut one of the long sides off your cardboard box. This will serve as the base for your train track.
- 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.
- Draw a center line down the middle of the cardboard.
- Draw one line 5 mm to each side of the centerline.
- Draw one line 20 mm to each side of the centerline.
Figure 3. Dimensions for lines you will draw on your piece of cardboard.
- 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.
- 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. Note: if the magnetic strips are not sticky enough to stick to the cardboard on their own, use clear double-sided tape. Make sure you press down firmly so they stick in place.
- 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.
Figure 4. Cross-sectional view of the spacing for the magnet strips and plastic angle pieces.
Figure 5. Picture of a completed track.
- 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.
Figure 6. Train hovering parallel to the tracks.
- Build a magnetic "stopper" on one end of your track, as shown in Figure 7.
- Cut a small rectangular piece of cardboard, about 7 cm by 5 cm.
- Use tape to attach the piece of cardboard at a right angle to one end of your track.
- Use double-sided foam tape to attach a rectangular magnet to the cardboard. Make sure the magnet is at the same height as the wooden block of the train when it is floating above the track, and is centered between the two plastic pieces.
Figure 7. A magnetic stopper at one end of the track.
- Use double-sided foam tape to attach one rectangular magnet to each end of your train, as shown in Figure 8. The magnets are heavy, so you need one on each side to keep the train balanced.
- Important: Test the magnets to see which side repels the magnet that is attached to the stopper. Make sure this side of the magnet is facing outward when you tape it to the train. Otherwise your braking system will not work, and your train will be attracted to the stopper instead of pushed away from it!
Figure 8. Magnets attached to both ends of the train.
- Elevate one end of your train track using several books, as shown in Figure 9. The exact height of one end of the track does not matter for this experiment (see the Variations section for an idea about how to measure the effect of this height).
Figure 9. Maglev train track placed on an incline using some textbooks.
Collecting Your Data
- Practice using your maglev train's stopper. Gently place the train about halfway up the track and let it slide down toward the stopper. The train should come to a stop before it touches the stopper. There are a couple problems you could run into, so do not worry if you need to adjust a few things before your stopper works nicely:
- If your train jumps off the tracks, it might be going too fast. Try starting it farther down the ramp, or decreasing the angle of the ramp.
- If your train gets stuck before it gets close to the stopper, there might be too much friction between the train and the plastic angle pieces. Try moving the plastic pieces apart slightly, or increasing the angle of the track so the train slides faster.
- The magnets on your stopper and the train might not be well-aligned. This can also cause the train to jump off the tracks, and the sides of the magnets to snap together instead of staying spaced apart. If necessary, adjust the height of the magnet on your stopper.
- Once you have your track adjusted so the stopper is working well, leave it in place. Use a pen or pencil to mark the approximate starting place on the track that works well.
- Now that you have seen how the stopper works, what do you think will happen when you add more magnets to the stopper?
- Create a data table, like Table 1, in your lab notebook.
|Distance Between Magnets|
|Number of Magnets||Trial 1||Trial 2||Trial 3||Average|
- Let the train slide down the track and come to a stop.
- Measure the distance between the stopper magnet and the magnet on the front of the train, as shown in Figure 10, and record it in your lab notebook. This counts as one trial.
Figure 10. Measure the distance between the two magnets, shown with the red arrow.
- Repeat steps 4–5 two more times, for a total of three trials.
- Now, add a second magnet to your stopper, as shown in Figure 11. It should snap into place directly on top of the first magnet (if the magnets are pushing away from each other, flip the new magnet around).
Figure 11. Second magnet added to the stopper.
- Repeat steps 4–6 with two stopping magnets stacked on top of each other. Make sure you record all of your results in your data table.
- Add a third magnet to the stopper and repeat steps 4–6.
- Add a fourth magnet to the stopper and repeat steps 4–6.
- For each number of magnets, calculate an average for your three trials and enter it in your data table. For example, say that for one magnet you measured distances of 18, 22, and 20 mm. The average is (18+22+20)÷3=20. Ask an adult if you need help calculating an average.
- Create a graph with the distance between magnets on the vertical axis and the number of magnets on the horizontal axis. See the Create a Graph website if you need help creating a graph.
- How does the distance between magnets change as you add more magnets to the stopper? Is this what you expected based on your background reading about magnets?
For troubleshooting tips, please read our FAQ: Stop the Train! Magnetic Brakes for a Maglev Train.
Communicating Your Results: Start Planning Your Display BoardCreate an award-winning display board with tips and design ideas from the experts at ArtSkills.
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:
Transportation EngineerHave you ever visited family members for the holidays? You might have started your trip by taking the subway or a train to the airport. Then you jumped on a plane and flew to your destination. Finally, a family member picked you up in his or her car and drove you home. You traveled hundreds of miles in just one day. How did this happen? Who planned the subway route to the airport? Who decided the position of the airport runway? Who designed the highways and roadways? The answer to all of these questions is the transportation engineer. The goal of the transportation engineer is to move people and goods safely and efficiently. Read more
Transportation PlannerDo you spend time enjoying a city park? The next time you go, take a minute to look around and see how other people arrive at the park. Some people may walk to the park on a maintained pathway. Others may come via the subway, if one is located close by. Still others may be dropped off by car, at a designated curb. A few may even bicycle to the park. But who plans all of these different ways of getting to the park? Well, that would be a transportation planner, who figures out how to get all of these people to the park and how all of these forms of transportation affect the park's environment. The role of transportation planners is to study the use and operation of transportation systems and to gather, compile, and analyze data for proposed transportation projects. Transportation planners keep our cities, states, and nation moving. Read more
Mechanical EngineerMechanical engineers are part of your everyday life, designing the spoon you used to eat your breakfast, your breakfast's packaging, the flip-top cap on your toothpaste tube, the zipper on your jacket, the car, bike, or bus you took to school, the chair you sat in, the door handle you grasped and the hinges it opened on, and the ballpoint pen you used to take your test. Virtually every object that you see around you has passed through the hands of a mechanical engineer. Consequently, their skills are in demand to design millions of different products in almost every type of industry. Read more
PhysicistPhysicists have a big goal in mind—to understand the nature of the entire universe and everything in it! To reach that goal, they observe and measure natural events seen on Earth and in the universe, and then develop theories, using mathematics, to explain why those phenomena occur. Physicists take on the challenge of explaining events that happen on the grandest scale imaginable to those that happen at the level of the smallest atomic particles. Their theories are then applied to human-scale projects to bring people new technologies, like computers, lasers, and fusion energy. Read more
- In this project, you used a stack of books to elevate one side of the track. Can you measure what happens when you create a steeper ramp? For this test, you would keep the number of magnets in your stopper constant and change the angle of your ramp. You can choose to measure the angle of the ramp with a protractor, or use the height at the far end of the track as an indicator of the "steepness" of the track.
- In this project, you started the train at the same position on the track each time. Does changing the train's starting position on the ramp affect your results? Keep the number of magnets and the track angle constant, but change the train's starting position as your independent variable. What happens?
- For a more advanced project, you can use a camera to film the train as it slides down the ramp. Take a close-up video as the train gets close to the stopper. Does the train get close to the stopper, then bounce back? Or does it gradually coast to a stop? Can you graph the distance to the stopper over time? Can you measure the closest distance between the two magnets and their final resting distance by analyzing the video? Tracker is a free program for analyzing video that makes it easy to measure distances.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Figure 12. The plastic angle pieces on this track are too far apart, allowing the wooden block to tip over.
- The magnetic strips on your track might be too close together, like in Figure 13. 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.
Figure 13. The magnetic strips on this track are too close together, resulting in the train being attracted to the track instead of repelled.
- Your plastic angle pieces might be too far apart, like in Figure 14. 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.
Figure 14. 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.
- 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 15, 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.
Figure 15. These magnetic strips are attracted to each other instead of repelled, so the train sits flat on the tracks with the strips aligned.
- Your kit comes with a compass. Hold the compass up to one of the magnetic strips on your train car as shown in Figure 16. Pay close attention to whether the red tip of the compass needle points towards or away from the magnetic strip.
Figure 16. 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.
- Do the same thing for one of the magnetic strips on your train track.
- 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.
- 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.
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 17. To do this:
- Check again whether the magnetic strips on your train car attract or repel the red tip of the compass needle.
- Find the end of the neodymium magnet that attracts the same end of the compass needle as the magnetic strip on the train car.
- 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).
- Do this for both magnetic strips on your train car.
- 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).
- If you still cannot get your maglev train to work properly, contact us at email@example.com for support.
Figure 17. Rub the neodymium magnet along the magnetic strip to repolarize it.
Ask an ExpertThe 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.
Ask an Expert
Contact UsIf you have purchased a kit for this project from Science Buddies, we are pleased to answer any question not addressed by the FAQ above.
In your email, please follow these instructions:
- What is your Science Buddies kit order number?
- Please describe how you need help as thoroughly as possible:
Good Question I'm trying to do Experimental Procedure step #5, "Scrape the insulation from the wire. . ." How do I know when I've scraped enough?
Good Question I'm at Experimental Procedure step #7, "Move the magnet back and forth . . ." and the LED is not lighting up.
Bad Question I don't understand the instructions. Help!
Good Question I am purchasing my materials. Can I substitute a 1N34 diode for the 1N25 diode called for in the material list?
Bad Question Can I use a different part?
News Feed on This Topic
Looking for more science fun?
Try one of our science activities for quick, anytime science explorations. The perfect thing to liven up a rainy day, school vacation, or moment of boredom.Find an Activity