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Stop the Train! Magnetic Brakes for a Maglev Train

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Difficulty
Time Required Average (6-10 days)
Prerequisites None
Material Availability This project requires the Maglev 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

Did 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?

Objective

Measure how the number of magnet "brakes" changes the stopping distance for a train sliding down a hill.

Credits

Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies

Cite This Page

MLA Style

Finio, Ben. "Stop the Train! Magnetic Brakes for a Maglev Train" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 28 July 2017. Web. 25 Sep. 2017 <https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Phys_p105/physics/maglev-train-magnetic-brakes>

APA Style

Finio, B. (2017, July 28). Stop the Train! Magnetic Brakes for a Maglev Train. Retrieved September 25, 2017 from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Phys_p105/physics/maglev-train-magnetic-brakes

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Last edit date: 2017-07-28

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, 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.

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 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
  • Maglev
  • Magnet
  • Magnetic field
  • Force
  • Magnetic poles
  • Weight
  • Gravity

Questions

  • 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?

Bibliography

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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)
    • 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
  • Pencil
  • Scissors
  • Ruler
  • Several books
  • 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 edge 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.
  1. Build a magnetic "stopper" on one end of your track, as shown in Figure 7.
    1. Cut a small rectangular piece of cardboard, about 7 cm by 5 cm.
    2. Use tape to attach the piece of cardboard at a right angle to one end of your track.
    3. 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.
maglev train magnetic stopper
Figure 7. A magnetic stopper at one end of the track.
  1. 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.
    1. 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!
maglev train with magnets attached
Figure 8. Magnets attached to both ends of the train.
  1. 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).
maglev train sliding down a hill
Figure 9. Maglev train track placed on an incline using some textbooks.

Collecting Your Data

  1. 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:
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
  2. Now that you have seen how the stopper works, what do you think will happen when you add more magnets to the stopper?
  3. Create a data table, like Table 1, in your lab notebook.
 Distance Between Magnets
Number of Magnets Trial 1 Trial 2 Trial 3 Average
1     
2     
3     
4     
Table 1. Example data table.
  1. Let the train slide down the track and come to a stop.
  2. 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.
measure distance between magnets
Figure 10. Measure the distance between the two magnets, shown with the red arrow.
  1. Repeat steps 4–5 two more times, for a total of three trials.
  2. 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).
maglev train stopper with 2 magnets
Figure 11. Second magnet added to the stopper.
  1. 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.
  2. Add a third magnet to the stopper and repeat steps 4–6.
  3. Add a fourth magnet to the stopper and repeat steps 4–6.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?

Troubleshooting

For troubleshooting tips, please read our FAQ: Stop the Train! Magnetic Brakes for a Maglev Train.

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Variations

  • 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.

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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 12, 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 12. 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 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.
Cross sectional view of the train when the magnetic strips are too close together.
Figure 13. 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 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.
Cross sectional view of the train when the plastic angle pieces are too far apart.
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.
  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 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.
Cross sectional view of the train when the magnetic strips are polarized the wrong way.
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.
  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 16. 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 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.
  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 17. 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 17. Rub the neodymium magnet along the magnetic strip to repolarize it.

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