Wednesday, June 27, 2012

143> Waiting for SkyTran…

Recently several alert readers have called some aspects of my latest designs into question. It is extremely easy, especially with CAD software, to get on a roll with a particular set of beginning assumptions and start working out details from there, never revisiting those initial assumptions. After all, once you go through the trouble of drawing a component, it is very hard to throw it away, so you tend to modify your design to make it work. I think this may be the case with the recent conversion to the “diamond” track.  So I am taking a break to reassess the basics before going back to component design. I need fresh eyes, and to sleep on the problem for a while.

In the meantime  I thought I might share a few observations about another highly ambitious suspended PRT system under development, SkyTran. Naturally I have given the system some thought, since perhaps there is something in the design that would benefit our little project.

Of course SkyTran’s most notable characteristic is the Inductrack technology, which uses magnetic levitation to eliminate the need for wheels, (and the inefficient friction and periodic replacement associated with them.) But before going much further, there is one very important point to keep in mind in regards to wheels… Inflatable tires that are designed to absorb shock (and grab the road to prevent skidding) are extremely inefficient. Hard wheels, such as the steel wheels on a train, offer MUCH less rolling resistance. Perhaps some alert reader out there can quantify this with some numbers, but my gut tells me that the difference between hard wheels and maglev is not much greater than between hard wheels and soft, road-worthy tires. Of course this point is somewhat moot, since our little design requires a certain amount of “give” to the main wheels, so they probably will be of solid rubber. My best guess is that this will put us about halfway between maglev and automotive tires in terms of frictional resistance, and still give us enough cushion for a quiet, smooth ride.  That said, let’s take an “under the hood” look at Inductrack.

With Inductrack, vehicle-mounted permanent magnets pass over magnetic coils in the track to induce current. That electricity, in turn, induces magnetism that will be polarized to repel those permanent magnets, creating lift. While this has been described as “passive” levitation,” this description is a bit misleading. Actually the system is behaving as a linear generator, where it uses the power generated by moving permanent magnets over coils to create lift, instead of harvesting that power for other uses.   

Generators and motors are structurally nearly identical, and the same can be said for linear generators and linear motors. Therefore such a system, with only minor modifications, can be made to propel and brake the vehicle as well.

It sounds too good to be true. All you need to do to make the vehicle “float” is to get it going a few miles per hour, and it takes almost nothing to push a floating object! But there’s a catch… do you see it? The reason this sounds so darn good is because it has the attributes of a perpetual motion machine. It is a generator that feeds a motor that propels a generator that feeds a motor. We all know that perpetual motion is impossible – that energy must be added- and Inductrack is no exception. Inductrack is unique, though, in that levitation can be had from any outside form of propulsion, from jet engines to sliding down a hill. But for PRT, where the applied energy will undoubtedly be electrical, it raises an important question. “How efficient is this Inductrack design compared to other forms of maglev?” After all, we have established that energy needs to be applied to Inductrack to create the propulsion that creates the lift. Anyone who owns a generator knows that the motor works harder under load. In the case of Inductrack, this effect would manifest itself by creating some amount of drag on any source of propulsion, so the vehicle is not really floating freely, but rather encountering resistance because it, too, is “under load”.  Other forms of maglev simply create the lift and propulsion directly. Why should Inductrack be more efficient? Another problem I see is with linear motors in general, where the object being propelled is a big, wind catching object possibly filled with hyperactive children. That is the fact that the greater the gap between the vehicle and the track, the less efficient the linear motor. The motors I have seen need a gap of less than a quarter inch to be reasonably efficient, and half of that to be comparable to a rotary motor. 

Let’s take a brief look at maglev in general, including  SkyTran’s approach. The benefits are obvious. No noise, friction, or moving parts to wear out. The downside is that it puts a bunch of electrical hardware into the track, and that has consequences in terms of how any given transit project is routed and financed. If all of the propulsion hardware is in the vehicle, that investment is put to immediate and nearly continuous use, where it can pay for itself. If the expense is shifted to the track, then that track must be equally in constant and continuous use to achieve a timely payback. This seems problematic to me, because it would tend to inhibit expansion of routes. Or, put another way, is this the most efficient use of copper? In the vehicle (in a rotary motor) the same copper coils are used again and again, with each rotation of the wheels. In the track, between each passing vehicle the copper just sits there, paid for, but unused. The shear mass of the coils is many times what it would be if they were in the vehicles, so it is more expensive, period. More expensive, but, all else being equal, well … better.

Speaking of “All else being equal,” I was going to point out that maglev vehicles, like their LIM powered cousins, would tend to be less maneuverable in close quarters, especially tight vertical turns. Actually, though, I think that problem is surmountable.  This is something I wish the SkyTran people would address. As it stands, The SkyTran’s stations need to be elevated, and that means elevators. True, good maneuverability would complicate their simple design and might make the curved track segments more expensive, but I think the versatility would be worth it.

Maglev, it seems to me, requires more than a single track profile, in terms of how it is wired. Nobody, in this fast-paced world, wants to accelerate at a snail’s pace, and feeder tracks need to be kept short anyway. That means big, beefy acceleration coils in the track around stations. At speeds just under where aerodynamic drag starts to really take its toll, I would expect the track’s coils to be minimal. For very high speeds, air resistance again creates the need for high energy input. I have just mentioned that very tight turns might require special provisions to keep the vehicle centered and moving. (Actually Inductrack comes in two flavors, a high speed and a low speed type, but this still does not address the propulsion issue, at least as far as I can tell.)

Since maglev vehicles are untethered, transfer of power from the track to the vehicle is more problematic. Any onboard battery must presumably be recharged at the station, or additional magnets and coils can be used as a linear generator. (creating more resistance to propulsion) I wonder though. If there was a break in the track, cutting off power, would a SkyTran vehicle be stranded? Or is there a way to hobble to a station or emergency evacuation area on battery power alone? It is not impossible that a maglev system could be entirely battery powered, or battery powered but supplemented where higher power is required, such as acceleration ramps. But again, you can’t just harvest the energy that you are creating. Battery powered maglev would require charging stations or a way to harvest energy from an electrified track through magnetic induction, which sort of defeats the purpose.  

To summarize, it has been said the maglev is the future for transportation, and that may well be the case. SkyTran’s Inductrack technology demonstrates that the amount of power that is required to break the bonds of gravity (and loose the wheels) is not that great. (even the best rare earth magnets moving over coils at only, say, 12 mph represent VERY little generated power, since speed is everything when it comes to the amount of electricity a generator can make) The underlying principals involved in this, and other maglev designs are simple and well understood. Anyone who has ever opened up a typical electric motor has seen the components – copper coils to induce or harvest magnetism, and steel laminations to coax those fields where they are needed most, perhaps some permanent magnets.  We have been using the techniques for the last century. Using it for linear, instead of circular propulsion, and tweaking it to create repelling magnetic fields to create lift, well, that is more recent. Nonetheless, we are basically talking about geometry here. It is the clever arrangement of the magnets, coils and laminations that makes everything possible. Making it application specific – say, for a payload of 2-4 people with expectations of performance similar to their family car – that is, indeed, an undertaking! The people at SkyTran say they have it essentially nailed down, but all complex engineering tasks involve compromise, and we don’t yet know what specific trade-offs they have had to accept.

In the meantime, for what it is worth, our humble little system is suitable for a retrofit, if and when it comes to that point. And a hybrid is not out of the question! After all, their weakness, (low speeds, maneuverability) are our strengths, and our challenges (going through tires because of high speeds, too much machinery packed into a small track, getting silky-smooth high-speed switching) are their strengths. Who knows?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

142> Dodging Bullets

Well, as I write this, it is (for those of us who are US citizens) Memorial Day, or as we say here in rural New Hampshire, “Better-shoot-off-our-guns” Day. And so I am “sheltering in place,” in my cabin, trying my best to ignore the gunfire and musing over the state motto, “Live free or die!”. 

In my last post I outlined a design that I am hoping ends the long quest for the perfect framework for a ultra-high performance PRT system, and I want to add a couple of additional comments. First of all, I would point out that my depictions illustrate both a track and bogie wheels, but not just for any bogie. It’s a high-speed one, and that is a very important point. You see, if we were just talking about the speeds normally associated with PRT, any one of a number of wheel designs would suffice. But I am looking for a design than can potentially well exceed highway speeds, and that explains my fixation with larger wheels. You see, I believe that the corridors created by highways are perfect for PRT, and that commercial development has tended to be along these areas anyway. In most US cities, almost all of one’s needs may be met within a block or two of a highway. I also don’t mean ONLY high speed. It must also be highly maneuverable to get everywhere you might want to go in a dense suburban environment. 

Giving PRT longer-haul, faster capabilities has certain design ramifications, and those larger wheels are meant to address the wear multiplied by both higher speeds and greater distances. This does not mean that the larger wheeled system is the only one that can run on the track, but rather that the track profile is equally well suited for high speeds as low. The use of off-the-shelf steel makes the running surfaces  extremely cheap and easy to fabricate, and can be housed in a variety of ways, such as trusses, a box-beam, or even open, such as in an roofed enclosure.  

The profile is advantagious because it does not force the wheels to run on round pipe, something that concentrates wear on the center of the tires or solid wheels, yet the square tubing is easy to bend using a conventional 3 roll pipe bender, as shown below. (Needs V-grooved rolls)

Of course running PRT wheels on flat surfaces is nothing new, but established designs mandate that the beam that houses the running surfaces be of sufficient size to house those various guide wheels – generally oriented sideways. This limits those wheel sizes to less than one half of the interior of the truss or box beam. This has meant a trade-off between what you had to look at overhead, and the life of those wheels. Whereas that track girth can otherwise be justified for structural reasons if the spans are to be large, if it is convenient and cost effective to space track support poles more closely, then the track itself can be thinner, cheaper, and more attractive. Turning those flat running surfaces diagonally allows for either longer-lasting guide wheels, thinner track, or a little of each. Of course placing the main guide wheels outside of the track doesn’t hurt either!

That brings up the point by alert reader Rick, who noted that there has been an alarming departure from previous designs in that there is no failsafe for the possibility of a steering guide wheel failing to respond. This is true, but I stand by my design. A feature of many early designs, such as the one depicted in this patent drawing, is that they always had one or the other the of steering guide wheels engaged. That way if the something failed, the vehicle would still go one way or the other, and would never crash by trying to go both ways or somewhere between. 

That is fine, and an excellent feature, but those wheels that stay engaged for safety sake must, in a high speed long distance system, do so for thousands of miles per week at high RPM. What if the system is to include an express shuttle that bypasses many areas that have no PRT service, so there are very long stretches with no off ramps? Would we want to be wearing out the steering guide wheels for that whole time?  

I would note that there has been somewhat of a culture change underway in recent years in regard to the trust we put in our computer controlled equipment. When Anderson patented this mechanism, meant to “snap” the steering into full left or right positions, it was in a time when making the system centrally controlled was not a choice but rather mandated by the size and cost of even limited computational power. I am on record as advocating a more autonomous control architecture than many proposed systems, and autonomy certainly plays a part in any discussion on the safety of a system that requires an action at every junction. Google’s robocar, now licensed to drive in Nevada, could, on a twisty road, certainly veer into oncoming traffic by a similar failure to actively steer. Luckily the vehicle is not driving by Google Maps alone, but by an array of sensors and onboard computers all working in concert to create a vehicle that can act and react autonomously. Now, in the days of “cloud” computing (many seperate computers drawing from, and collaborating through, a central computer) and supercomputers made of dispersed computers sharing a common program, (such as SETI) the lines have been totally blurred. With today’s technology, steering gear deployment can be assured through a number of cooperative means, including autonomously from within the vehicle, from sensors within the track, from communication with a central computer and/or any combination therein.  

Another, separate point that needs to made is that the track and bogie combination has been carefully designed to allow extremely tight turns, including changes of pitch, and the combination of this attribute with high speeds and switching is particularly challenging.

Anyway, to get back to a point I was making earlier, by dialing back the speed a bit, many other bogie designs are possible, and may be more practical than what I have shown for those speeds. My focus is to not PRECLUDE high speed (or other valuable attributes) in the track first, and then to design practical bogies for that track. I am really not sure what a downtown-use-only bogie for this track would look like at this point. I'll have to work on it between the bullets.