China Will Be Testing Two Maglev Systems to Transport Freight: Up to Three Times Cheaper than Trucks or Rail

UPDATE: Follow up with more pictures of the Magplane pipeline work in progress in China and the proposed system for passenger transportation.

China is installing two prototype magnetically levitated (maglev) systems for transporting coal in Inner Mongolia in an attempt to increase transport speeds and efficiencies, and to reduce pollution.
Cost studies show $0.13 to 0.017 per ton-mile depending upon the length of magnetic pipe. Rail and truck costs are in the $0.35 to 0.05 per ton-mile cost range.

The first system is being co-developed by the Chinese motor manufacturer Harbin Electric and a domestic Maglev (magnetic levitation) technology specialist. The first phase of the project – to build a 850m-long linear motor-driven freight test track at a coal mine – is already underway.

Once the test track has been validated, the project is expected to expand to a 32km-long coal transportation line in Inner Mongolia, with Harbin providing the linear motor drive systems.

The second maglev system is being developed by a joint venture between US-based Magplane Technology, and Chinese partners. This will use a tubular maglev system called MagPipes to move coal from Mongolian mines. A 32-acre (12.9ha) facility (shown above) is being built at Baotou in Inner Mongolia, which will be able to build up 200km of MagPipes a year. Production of components has been sub-contracted to Chinese suppliers.

Magplane Magpipes
Magplane Technology designs and fabricates pipeline transport systems using the linear synchronous motor technology developed for the Magplane system. Typical applications for pipeline transport range from priority mail packages to ore transport. A typical ore application would have an underground pair of 60 cm diameter pipes for outbound and returning capsules, and typically carry 10 millions tons per year over a distance of 50 km.
Electromagnetic drives for pipeline systems are intended to replace pneumatic capsules. Pneumatic capsule pipelines have a long history, and there are several large scale systems in current use. Conventional pneumatic systems use external blowers to move the column of air together with the capsules in the pipe. Full-diameter valves are used to control the injection, removal and subsequent return of capsules. Various practical limits constrain the throughput of these systems and limit their cost effectiveness.

A demonstration project which uses a linear synchronous motor to move vehicles has been constructed at the IMC-Agrico Company in Lakeland, FL. The demonstration utilizes 200 m of 60 cm diameter cylindrical cast “waste water” fiberglass tube, and includes a 60 m long accelerator/decelerator section, a switch, and load and unload stations. The test vehicle traverses back and forth at a peak speed of 65 km/hr. The 1.8 m long wheelbase vehicle uses six-wheel assemblies at each end of a rotating hopper, and has a payload capacity of 270 kg. The vehicle carries an array of neodymium-iron boron permanent magnets which interact with the linear motor mounted on the outside of the tube to provide propulsion, and with external coils to provide an electromagnetic switch function.

A 15 page pdf “Capsule Pipeline Transport Using An Electromagnetic Drive”

Another company, Launchpoint Technologies, is developing a freight rail electrication system.

Truck and Rail Freight Statistics Updated
Treehugger reports on the latest efforts to increase the efficiency of rail and truck freight transportation costs.

State-of-the-art trucks can begin to approach the ton-miles per gallon of trains (350+ ton-miles for trucks vs. 400 to 450 ton-miles for rail).

RMI’s [Rocky Mountain Institute – energy efficiency evangilists] 2008 peer-reviewed analysis, based on tested science, found a combination of improved aerodynamics, low rolling resisitance tires, and more efficient engines could more than double the ton-mileage of the average class 8 truck from 130 ton-mile per gallon to 275 ton-mile/gallon.

This is mostly theoretical improvements which have not been implemented even in a real life test trial. Walmart has the goal of achieving these level of efficiency gains for its truck fleet by 2015

US Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) show that pipelines move about 20% of the nations freight.

US Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) costs of freight transporation by mode

Air 82 cents per ton mile
Truck 26 cents per ton mile
Rail 2.9 cents per ton mile
Barge 0.72 cents per ton mile (2001)
Pipeline 1.49 cents per ton mile (2001)

Magnetic pipelines on a large scale seem to approach the cost of shipping oil via pipeline.

RAND study of rail versus truck freight external costs in accidents and pollution. Magnetic pipelines would have lower external costs as well as lower energy costs. Only barges would have lower costs. Barges have more pollution and barges need to have a sufficiently deep waterway to allow for transportation. The magnetic pipeline is faster than a barge.

2008 Canadian Railway study of rail trends. (38 page pdf)

Energy use by mode of freight transportation according to the CBO (Congressional Budget Office.)

Oil pipelines use only 500 BTUs (British Thermal Units) per ton-mile (280 ton-miles per gallon of diesel fuel), but they are limited by their very specialized function. The efficiency of inland barges (990 BTUs per ton-mile or 140 ton-miles per gallon on average), is likewise offset by the roundaboutness or circuity of most rivers. Also, significant amounts of energy may be required to bring cargo to a waterway system: grain and other farm products are sometimes trucked 200 miles to a river, increasing energy use per ton-mile by 50 percent or more.

The efficiency of rail transportation varies considerably depending on the commodity and the level of service provided; at one extreme, unit trains designed to carry only coal typically require less than 900 BTUs per ton-mile of cargo (155 ton-miles per gallon), while at the other extreme high-speed short trailer-on-flat-car (TOFC) trains use about 2,000 BTUs per ton-mile of cargo (68 ton-miles per gallon).

Intercity trucks require on average about 3,400 BTUs per ton-mile of cargo (41 ton-miles per gallon), twice the rail average and 1.7 times that for rail TOFC. It is not surprising that trucks require more energy since they provide a generally higher level of service than rail.

An even higher level of service, and hence greater energy need, is characteristic of air freight. In planes devoted to air freight, over 28,000 BTUs per ton-mile of cargo may be required (5 ton-miles per gallon), although freight carried in the belly of a passenger plane may require only 3,900 BTUs per ton-mile of cargo (35 ton-miles per gallon).

A specialized new mode of freight transportation is the coal slurry pipeline; this appears to require about 1,270 BTUs per ton-mile of coal–although this conclusion is based largely on engineering studies