Chinese researchers at the Applied Superconductivity Laboratory of Southwest Jiatong University, led by Dr. Deng Zigang, are developing a maglev train prototype to run inside an evacuated tube, which could potentially reach supersonic speeds up to 1,800 mph. The limit to the speed of a maglev system is not the maglev technology itself, but the aerodynamic drag the vehicle encounters at high speeds. The Chinese evacuated-tube design lowers the atmospheric pressure inside to 10 times less than normal atmospheric pressure. Dr. Zigan explained to the British newspaper Daily Mail, in an interview published on May 7, that they are developing an evacuated-tube system because, in the open air, if the speed of the vehicle exceeds 250 miles per hour, more than 83% of the energy to run the system will “wastefully dissipate in air resistance.”
As the article notes, the concept of evacuated-tube, superconducting-magnet maglev goes back to the middle of the last century. The original patent for this system, using high energy-flux density superconducting magnets, was, in fact, granted to two scientists working at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, in the mid-1960s. Magnetic levitation transport systems, developed initially in the U.S. and Germany, have only been commercially deployed in Japan and China, an indication of the collapse in trans-Atlantic productivity over decades, as compared to the Asian thrust into high-technology applications.
So far, the researchers at the Chinese laboratory have successfully tested their vehicle in a 40-foot diameter closed circular loop. Dr. Zigan noted in his interview, that the advanced maglev system “could be applied to some military or space launch systems.” A concrete design for a maglev space launcher was proposed years ago as the “StarTram” system by American developers, Drs. Jim Powell and Gordon Danby, to dramatically lower the cost of deploying unmanned satellites to Earth orbit.
Overall, the basic difference between the American and Chinese maglev programs is that we destroyed our most promising projects, and the Chinese are building them.