Magnets. You already know what they are and everything about them. Or do you? Magnets are crucial to many more emerging technologies than you might expect. The tried-and-true magnet is about to change everything– from how we drive and treat cancer to how we play sports.
1. Maglev Trains
Lightning-fast trains that hover using magnets, like this one in Japan seen in 2010, are positioned to be the next major transportation breakthrough. Credit: Getty
Earlier this year, Japan broke a world speed record for a train: 366 miles an hour. How’d they do it? Magnets, of course.
Japan used a maglev train: a special type of high-speed train that nixes wheels for magnets. How do magnets help trains go faster? It’s pretty simple: friction is totally eliminated. The trains hover above the rails, wheel-free, and are pulled along at nutso speeds using electromagnets.
The forces being repelled from one another are the train’s onboard superconducting magnets and magnetic coils in the sides of the surrounding guide rails. These opposing forces with alternating north and south poles create a push-and-pull effect that propel it forward.
Also built into the guide rails are more coils that become electromagnets as those superconducting magnets aboard the train pass through. This creates a second push-and-pull force that lifts the train a few inches off the ground. (Those guide rails that cradle Japan’s maglev are U-shaped to prevent derailments.)
Thanks to this simple notion in magnets and physics, maglev trains are greener, faster, quieter, and deliver smoother rides than traditional trains.
High-speed rail has existed in developed countries the world over for decades but these blink-and-you’ll-miss-'em maglev models mark the next stage of train evolution. In fact, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the US earlier this year on a diplomatic trip, he said he wants the Japanese government to help build a maglev train linking Baltimore and Washington, DC. Since magnets mean big infrastructural projects, they mean big business, too.
Countries ‘round the globe have all started pursuing this new transportation tech, as well. Shanghai’s been running a maglev in China for over a decade, and Seoul’s Incheon Airport will sport a smaller-scale maglev train of its own starting this summer.
The Hendo Hoverboard by Arx Pax is shown here in 2014. It’s a commercial hoverboard that uses magnets to float about an inch from terra firma. Credit: AP
As 2015 drew nearer, people started demanding a Back to the Future 2-style hoverboard–and now, companies are actually attempting to deliver. Will they bring a McFly-approved mode of futuristic transport to consumers? They’ve actually taken big steps toward doing so, with the help of magnets.
Earlier this month, Lexus debuted its hoverboard Slide (which Jalopnik tested), achieving what was thought to be unachievable: Though heavy and unwieldy, it was a ridable, skateboard-like object that actually floated an inch off the ground. Lexus describes the board as “assembling maglev technology onto a board.” Gizmodo tested another hoverboard using similar maglev technology called Hendo.
The body of Lexus’s board contains superconductors surrounded by liquid hydrogen reservoirs that plummet the superconductors to -107°C, plus two magnets on each end of the board. The board is placed on a floor with magnets built into it, and lifts the board in a similar way to a maglev train.
Don’t get us wrong, there’s still plenty to be sceptical of. These boards are hard to navigate, can only hover under certain conditions, and the battery in the one we tried died lickety split. But, as is the case with those supertrains popping up across the planet, magnets mean big things for tomorrow’s transportation – not to mention tomorrow’s toys.
3. Cancer-detecting Pills
Pathologists, like this one examining biopsy samples, might one day be able to harness the power of magnetic fields to help fight cancer cells in humans. Credit: Shutterstock
Emerging technologies often seem like moonshots at first, and Google X’s arsenal of out-there projects is no exception. One in particular uses magnets in a really cool, surprising way: stick ‘em in small pills to sniff out deadly diseases in the human body.
How does it work? The answer lies in magnetic nanoparticles — ridiculously small particles containing a harmless magnetic material that would attach themselves to circulating cancer cells in a patient’s bloodstream. Google wants to develop a swallowable tablet filled with these nanoparticles that would, upon consumption, cruise the user’s bloodstream in search for cancerous cells. Those findings would be relayed back to a wearable sensor on the wrist, where the magnetised, cancer-detecting nanoparticles would gather. This would help doctors find cancer early in patients.
Other folks have pursued magnets as cancer-busting super weapons, as well. In 2012, South Korean researchers said they came up with a way to use a magnetic field to actually destroy cancerous cells. That’s advantageous to chemo, they said, since chemotherapy can also inadvertently harm noncancerous cells in the body.
4. Concussion-proof Helmets
Denver Broncos strong safety David Bruton being treated for suspected concussion late last year in a match against the Oakland Raiders. Credit: Getty
Magnet technology is even sneaking its way into sports. By using magnets in protective gear in American football, the industry could better prevent concussions and other serious head injuries among its players.
Football used to be straight up deadly, as Science reported last November. When those soft, leather helmets of yore were swapped for polycarbonate helmet shells, the number of fatalities went way down. Still, America’s most-watched sport has been under intense fire recently, and rightfully so: last year, 123 concussions were reported in the NFL, most of them incurred by defensive players. Now, football helmets might be on the verge of another design revolution.
Hard helmets protect skulls, but still leave brains vulnerable to injury since they just float in cerebral spinal fluid. But Raymond Colello, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, asserts that adding lightweight magnets to the front and sides of all football helmets could act as “brakes” in head-to-head collisions, Science reports. As two players approach either mid-tackle, the magnetised helmets slightly repel each other, decreasing the G-forces that would hit each player’s head in the collision.
Of course, this only safeguards against noggin-to-noggin traumas, not noggin-to-knee, say. But Colello’s plan could provide technology that might significantly reduce the overall number of concussions sustained among players in an incredibly dangerous sport.
5. Controlling Heat and Sound
This year, scientists proved magnets can manipulate the amount of heat travelling through a semiconductor. Credit: The Ohio State University
It sounds like an X-Men subplot, but scientists recently showed that magnetic fields can be used manipulate heat and sound.
Researchers at the Ohio State University announced earlier this year that they can control heat with magnetic fields. But their discovery affects sound, too. They examined the magnetic properties of phonons, which are particles that transmit both sound and heat. Using an MRI-sized magnetic field, they controlled the behaviour of phonons and lowered the amount of heat that flowed through a semiconductor by 12 per cent. Their work is a big deal because it shows that magnetic fields can manipulate heat in materials that aren’t traditionally magnetic, like glass, plastic, or stone. Currently, however, doing so requires a massive magnet.
The team also said they could direct sound waves magnetically – again, if the magnetic field was sizeable enough.
Until now, phonons weren’t as extensively studied as say, photons. But their heat and sound both involve atoms vibrating – expressions of the same form of quantum mechanic energy, the university says. The university admits that this discovery is still largely bound to labs. The experiment used a 7-tesla magnet, which aren’t exactly growing on trees out in the real world, and also involved chilling the phonons to near absolute zero in order to slow their movement for study. (Hoverboard and maglev trains need wicked cold temperatures to activate magnets’ potential, as well.)
Still, it’s a big discovery that could make scientists seriously reevaluate the way they look at and study phonons. Using magnetic fields to steer heat and sound could open a lot of doors in energy production down the road.
6. Roads for Self-Driving Cars
Volvo announced last year plans to use magnets that can help align self-driving cars on the road. Credit: Volvo
Driverless vehicles are currently the hottest race among tech companies, auto companies, and startups of all stripes. And it’s becoming a more crowded arena all the time. But given how accident-prone these human-free chariots might be, we need to make sure our highways are ready for their widespread arrival. Again: cue the magnets.
Volvo announced last year that it had completed a research project that showed the advantages of implanting magnetic sensors in streets. These could serve as “tracks” to help guide the company’s self-driving cars. These magnets have an edge over other technologies, like GPS, which might fuzz out in certain conditions and can sometimes be unreliable.
Plus, we’ve still yet to fully understand how self-driving cars perform in adverse conditions like rain or snow. But Volvo says these magnets can help driverless cars navigate that kind of gross weather, too. While self-driving cars can function without these magnet-embedded super streets, they would provide a nice complement.
Of course, they also present a colossal infrastructural challenge: Like the Slide hoverboard, Volvo’s plan involves specially designed tracks that would be ready for the vehicle ahead of time. Having to totally revamp the roads — and build some from scratch — might make the technology way more trouble than it’s worth.
You can see the challenges that many of these magnet-orientated technologies face going forward: idiosyncratic infrastructure, monstrously low temperatures, and other tricky requirements must be met in order for magnets to work this kind of magic.
But, like all emerging technologies, once these projects gradually start to leave the lab and approach commercialisation, we’ll see humans unlocking magnets’ potential in host of different sectors, from sports to medicine and, especially, to transportation.
The most familiar tools can sometimes yield the most astonishing results. The future has big plans for magnets, and they go way beyond your fridge door.
Image by Jim Cooke