Passive magnetic levitation: The future of land-based transport?

Oh how far we’ve come!

So, what’s passive magnetic levitation or passive maglev, for short?

First, some are referring to passive maglev as the fifth (or next) generation of land- or ground-based travel and transport. What makes this the fifth generation is the principle element of levitation. Be this as it may, more tweaking, refining is needed to get all of the bugs worked out prior to it becoming commercially available. So, we’re not there yet, but, we’re close, apparently.

Okay, so imagine you’re traveling on a motorway you in your pod moving at speed, your “wheel-less” transporter seemingly floating on air, and separating the carriage’s underside from the pavement surface below is but a mere centimeters. You are joined by people in countless other pods, all travel conveyances already having had pre-programmed into their data storage and computer banks corresponding destination coordinates. Your personal hover craft takes and gets you to your destination with great speed and agility (without incident, in other words) or damage to the outside air. If you were fuzzy on what was meant by the fifth generation in travel and transport, you should be clear on this now.

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Concepts, meanwhile, like Hyperloop propose to do something similar.

“Is what we are witnessing just a bunch of hype or is there really something to this; is something on this order even doable?” some are invariably asking. As to the latter, yes there/it is.

And, if we’re close, just how close? Three to five years away, some say.

All rides on magnets

This passive maglev idea is nothing new. Yet, it’s taken some 20 years to really catch on.

In my ebook: The Departure Track: Railways of Tomorrow, Christopher Perkins, a skyTran Executive Vice President when the book was published in late 2013, elaborates:

“Active maglev requires external electrical power to induce levitation. Passive maglev requires no external power to levitate vehicles. Rather, the magnetic repulsion is produced by the movement of the vehicle over shorted wire coils in the track. Essentially, a linear motor that provides vehicle locomotion does double duty by inducing the levitation effect.”1

As for how far back this propulsion technique goes, in The Departure Track I provided some detail. “Over a two-year time frame beginning in 1996, there was some really pioneering work in rail-oriented passive maglev development going on. In fact, according to information released in the June 1998 edition of Science & Technology Review magazine, a team of scientists under the direction of physicist Richard Post, Ph. D. at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, designed, built and in evaluation trials, successfully tested a passive magnetically levitated rail-like conveyance. The name of this conveyance: Inductrack.”

So, why is this approach to automated travel, moving, all the rage, or at least seem that way?

Why? It’s because of the physical separation between the passively and at the same time magnetically levitated vehicles and the infrastructure that is used to support them. This, plus the fact there is hardly any friction generated in the motion of one relative to the other. In fact, the friction that does come into play is the outside ambient air acting on or affecting the moving vehicle traveling through it. The more aerodynamic the vehicle design, the lower the friction. And in systems like Hyperloop and other evacuated or vacuum tube-type systems, experimentation and testing is taking place inside ensconced, controlled-atmosphere environments in order to try to achieve even greater efficiencies and speeds.

Jerry Sanders, skyTran CEO and Chairman, as well in The Departure Track added: “Passive MagLev requires one magnet traveling within a field of coils, the motion of the magnet generates its own magnetic field and thus causing levitation; very inexpensive, low energy use, versatile, efficient and effective.”2

Moreover, passive magnetic levitation systems are excellent candidates for feeds from renewable energy sources that can supply the power to enable operation; renewable energy sources such as wind or photovoltaic (solar), for example. And, that allows for operation within the environment without harming it or the outside air. Old-school internal combustion for propulsion just isn’t needed.

So, if this three-to-five-years-from-now commercialization timeline comes to fruition, not only will people be able to travel environmentally soundly (without adverse effect on the environment), but so too (from what I read) goods and/or materials (cargo) will be able to be transported using the passive maglev propulsion technique also.

Three-to-five years: 2021 is not that far off.


  1. Alan Kandel, The Departure Track: Railways of Tomorrow, 2013
  2. Ibid
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This post has been updated.

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