Science Is Easing Your Commute

Traveling from Washington to Baltimore in only 15 minutes? Seems far-fetched, but is within reach.

I was thrilled to find out that the U.S. Transportation Department has provided funding to study a high-speed magnetic levitation ("Maglev") rail line that would carry passengers between Washington, DC and Baltimore in a quarter hour.

As a scientist in condensed matter physics and a frequent traveler, I'm excited about this news and strongly believe in this ambitious project because it's such a great example of how we can transform fundamental research and scientific discoveries into a cutting-edge technology that positively impacts the economy and people's daily lives.

My own work at UC Berkeley focuses on high-temperature superconductivity, a phenomenon in which electrons coherently pair up to travel without resistance in a material at a relatively high temperature. This research is already being applied in the development of high-speed Maglev trains, which use magnetic forces to accelerate smoothly at speeds of up to 375 mph by levitating on top of the tracks. I can see great potential for the application of this energy-efficient technology in the busy Northeast Corridor and, later, all over the U.S.

This news is also example of how fundamental science research could greatly transform the technologies in our daily lives. The operation of Maglev trains can benefit greatly from superconducting electromagnets, which would reduce both the physical size and the energy wasted compared to a conventional electromagnet. Perhaps more importantly, if room-temperature superconductors are discovered, it would also significantly cut down the operation cost. It is always motivating for us to see that the scientific questions being asked in the labs can have answers with surprisingly interesting potential for applications.

The discovery of superconductivity was an accident after all, and decades later, we can sit in a train that flies past mountains and rivers by floating on top of tracks. How cool is that?