Back in 2005 when I defended my thesis on magnetically-levitated (or simply, Maglev) rail networks in the Southwestern U.S., I continued to question where the energy to propel these trains would come from. Almost 10 years later, I think the technology for such an engineering feat is becoming a reality. The production of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) might hold the key.
First, about Maglev. On November 18th, the New York Times published an article titled Japan Pitches Its High-Speed Train With an Offer to Finance. It discusses how "to interest lawmakers and investors in the United States in the Japanese technology, Japan has offered to cover several billion dollars in costs. The commitment of Japanese taxpayer money is a sign of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s determination to do whatever it takes to prime the Japanese economy and to restore Japan’s fading reputation for technological prowess."
This is not the first time Japan has used its dimplomatic channels to woo the US with its Maglev technologies. Initially, Japan sought to merely export its technology to the US, but now it seems to want to invest its own resources in a potentially game-changing corridor between New York and Washington, DC.
The steep capital costs associated with this rail technology are mostly concentrated in the actual track technology. This is because with the current Maglev system, the train is a passive vessel and the U shaped track is magnetically active. It pulls and pushes the train along with a series of moving electrical charges that transfer the magnetic charge to the train and move it along the track.
This technology is also highly energy intensive, considering that electricity must be distributed along the track and travel along with the train, constantly compensating for losses in the system due to friction in transmission. Notwithstanding the demands placed on various utilities along the system, though I am sure the system would have to provide some power generation of its own to control for peak demand and seasonal variation in costs of electricity delivery.
Enter monorail Maglev technology.
With this generation of technology, the train is powered and the rail is more or less passive. Meaning, the track creates a "lifting" of the train, while the train itself propels itself laterally and directionally (forward and backward). But the big break through isn't just in the track design, though more could be discussed about the efficiencies and gains of each type.
My interest is in the crossing between Maglev technologies and Small Modular Reactors. Initially, I can conceive of an array of these modular reactors strung along the track in optimum distances so that the track has a reliable supply of power year round. But an ultimate application of this technology would be a rig-mounted SMR to an actual train at it's midpoint, so that regardless of the track type, the train is self-powered.
This follows the historical paradigm of train propulsion technology, from coal, to diesel, to electric -- all trains have some self-generating power capability, with electric trains just slightly less (and in some light-rail applications, no self-generating capacity at all).
Babcock & Wilcox mPower, Inc. is one such company leading the effort to bring SMRs to market. Though currently designed as stationary units to be scaled for local community distribution, the leap would occur in scaling reactor technology for mobile applications such as in submarines and aircraft carriers.
Considering the U.S. Department of Transportation's appetite for Maglev projects, the recent announcement from Japan will be an incredibly interesting development to watch in the next couple of years. The stake of impacts is huge, from environmental impacts through to market impacts, but the potential to create a next-generation tranport system in America is long-overdue and could be the shot in the arm needed to trigger other visionary projects such as Elon Musk's Hyperloop technology, for example.