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Transporting people with magnets

Datum bericht: 4 januari 2022

Floating to work... no, you are not dreaming. You are using an innovative means of transport that consumes little energy and is good for the climate too. It sounds almost too good to be true, but engineers and scientists are working on it!


More than 15 years ago, Professor Nigel Hussey first toyed with an innovative idea that could radically change how people move between destinations. He asked himself: with today's technologies and materials, can we come up with an alternative to electric vehicles? NIFTI (National Individual Floating Transport Infrastructure) was born from this question: a floating module – driven by electromagnetic pulses – which can transport people very safely while using little energy. For years it remained just an idea. Until 2018.

In that year, Hussey took a position at Radboud University in Nijmegen, where he performed calculations on NIFTI together with an intern. Thanks to an interfaculty grant – provided by Radboud University – the idea gradually developed into a fascinating and multidisciplinary research project that aims to explore the idea of these floating modules in more detail and ultimately bring it to reality in one way or another. "It may sound futuristic, but this concept is coming closer and closer to reality," says Britta Driessen, who works at Knowledge Transfer Office at Radboud University and is a member of the NIFTI team.

Magnetic levitation

The transport system that Hussey envisions is completely autonomous and uses magnetic levitation. Simply put, this means using electromagnets to create a magnetic field that lifts and propels the module. A means of transport that is levitated and propelled by magnets is nothing new in itself. In fact, several so-called maglev trains are already operating in Asia. Still under development is the Hyperloop – a kind of train that travels through a tunnel kept at a near vacuum so it encounters almost no air resistance and can reach extremely high speeds. This approach also uses magnetic levitation.


And yet Hussey's idea is unique – so unique that Radboud University successfully applied for a patent in 2019. “While a maglev train is equipped with electromagnetic coils through which current is sent to create a magnetic field, in NIFTI, the electromagnetic coils and associated induction motor are not in the module, but in the road surface,” explains Driessen. “In addition, current is sent through the electromagnets only when the vehicle is actually moving over them.”


This design has a number of important advantages. “The ‘engine’ is in the road surface instead of in the modules which makes the modules much lighter.” Specifically, the NIFTI pods that the researchers envision are about 75% lighter than an average electric car. “And because current only flows through the electromagnets when the module moves over them, the system is expected to use less power per module than an electric car. NIFTI is also much more energy efficient than approaches such as the Hyperloop, where creating a vacuum requires a lot of power.”

Less environmental impact

One of the great advantages of researchers creating an entirely new mode of transport from scratch is that the idea can be explored from different angles and academic disciplines before it becomes reality. For example, environmental researchers are also involved in NIFTI and they expect that the impact that NIFTI will have a smaller environmental impact than electric vehicles.

“This is primarily due to the relatively low power consumption. But it also applies the use of materials. We mainly use aluminium, which is much less harmful to the environment than materials such as cobalt and lithium that are used in the batteries of electric cars and are also becoming increasingly scarce.”

Interdisciplinary approach

With these advantages, it all sounds almost too good to be true. Indeed, the project is still in the study phase and no NIFTI modules are actually levitating through in the Dutch landscape. But that could change in the future. “An interdisciplinary research project has been established that involves 13 researchers from Radboud University and HAN University of Applied Sciences. This project aims at determining whether it is technically, organisationally and economically feasible to actually use NIFTI as a means of transport,” says Driessen. “In the research project we address questions such as where the challenges lie, what still needs to be done to make NIFTI a reality, what the transport system should look like and how it can be integrated into the existing system.”

In addition to physicists such as Hussey, the research team also includes scientists with radically different specialisms, such as sociology and even linguistics. “Mobility is a complex topic that requires a multidisciplinary approach,” says Driessen. Technological feasibility is obviously an important question, but equally important is whether people are willing to travel using NIFTI, and their reasons for doing so or not. “And social scientists can do research on these types of questions.” In the meantime, linguistic researchers can consider the question of whether speech control is desirable for NIFTI module in the future. “And if so, how should that speech recognition be optimally developed?”

The broad approach recently earned the NIFTI team the NWO Team Science Award. But even more important: at every step of the project, it is becoming increasingly clear that this concept can be developed into a solution to the mobility problem. At the same time, however, many questions are still unanswered. “That’s inherent to such radical innovation,” says Driessen. One major question is whether people will be willing to take a seat in an autonomous module that has no steering wheel, brakes or motor. “Another question is whether the regulation of autonomous vehicles will keep pace with the technology. At present, legislation and regulations do not allow autonomous vehicles such as NIFTI to travel on public roads. As part of our testing and innovation process, we are therefore looking at enclosed or protected environments, such as distribution centres, where the modules can be used to transport goods internally.”


Several prototypes of the NIFTI module have already been made. “Next year we will start work on a new prototype,” says Driessen. “It will be a miniature version of the Heyendaal shuttle that travels from Nijmegen Central Station to the Radboud campus. With this prototype, after the initial simulation work, we want to see what happens in practice when the modules have to deal with intersections, roundabouts, bends and interactions with emergency vehicles.

Next year we also want to test what happens when several modules are simultaneously active on the road. The modules will be controlled by a central computer system that communicates with the modules and keeps track of their location. Because all modules are controlled centrally, our expectation is that the transport system will be efficient and safe. For example, we expect that there will be fewer traffic jams and a lower risk of accidents than on the motorway.”

NIFTI is very suitable for the Netherlands

Implementation of the transport system in the Netherlands may still be a long way off, but it is certainly not impossible. "Especially in our country, we have many traffic jams and slowdowns, so the system can really make a difference. In addition, the Netherlands is very flat, which is an advantage for this technology because it takes less energy to move the modules in a flat landscape than a hilly one." Our little country is therefore perfect for NIFTI. But will the Dutch also be keen on using this system? In any case, Driessen thinks they will. "It seems ideal to me. You get in the module, tell it where you want to go, and then you just sit back and read a book or play a game until you arrive at your destination. The transport system thus provides more free time.”

No more traffic jams, fewer accidents, more free time, less environmental burden and carbon emissions – Hussey's idea has many advantages. And at the same time, it painfully exposes how detrimental our current modes of transport are. This motivates the researchers to keep going, but they also understand that they will have to let go of NIFTI at some point. “In the university environment, we can only complete the initial stages of development. At some point, the market will have to take over. And that is why we are already looking for industry partners who want to work with us. Only in this way can we scale up and determine whether the system is really as efficient, safe and environmentally benign as we now think it is.”

There is a lot of work to be done. But the scientists are not afraid of that; they will continue to work on the project in the hope that their radical innovation will one day be magnetically levitating through the Netherlands, transporting many relaxed commuters.

This is a translation of an article that appeared earlier on Scientias. Illustration of the NIFTI model: Radboud University