Trains and Monorails and Trolleys, Oh My… But Ultra Light Rail?

9 08 2007

Urban Core International BlogToday’s post continues on this week’s transportation theme. A few days ago we posted an article about electric cars and it got us thinking – what about electric forms of mass transportation? So we started researching, and found some of the most interesting new developments we’ve come across in quite some time.

One project being researched in California (among other places) caught our attention through its innovative use ofULR - Ultra Light Rail photovoltaics – the solar powered ultra light rail. Ultra Light Rail? We’ve heard of trains, subways, monorails, light-rails, trolleys, but what exactly is an “ultra light rail,” and how do they keep it powered using only solar energy? Great questions have great answers. The ULR (ultra light rail) is a smokeless, noiseless rail-based mass transit system. The technology behind the design comes from great advances in solar racing car technology (like the NASCAR of alternative energy). Each train car in the ULR holds between 20 – 40 passengers seated in a fashion similar to the design of a roller coaster. The cars themselves are teardrop shaped to allow for maximum aerodynamics. Designers of the train are aiming for a weight of 100lbs per passenger, and this might just be one of the biggest advancements they’ve made, considering that even new light-rail systems have a weight of 2000lbs per passenger. This is key, as the significant weight reduction means it requires less energy to propel the system forward, and also to stop it. Here is the icing on the cake – each car is equipped with 160 square feet of solar panels, providing 2kw hours of power, which translates to 3HP. Thinking that’s not enough to power the train? Your absolutely right, which is why each of the train stations that the rail stops at are equipped with 1000 square feet of solar panels, providing 10kw of energy that recharges the ULR’s batteries every time it makes a stop!

JPodsTwo other solar powered transportation systems we found being researched are JPods and the Vectus PRT (PersonalVectus PRT Rapid Transit). These two systems share one thing in common that differs greatly from the light rail system. In these systems, the size of the “cars” are much much smaller, carrying 2 – 4 passengers instead of 20 – 40. Why the difference in the way designers thinks? The designers of these smaller cars are seeing the time and energy wasted stopping an entire train when only a few people need to get off at a certain stop. By making the vehicles smaller, they can move people around more efficiently.

For any skiers out there, JPods look similar in style to the larger ski lifts with enclosed carts. They run on a track system that is built in the sky, from which they hang down. Other than the futuristic look of JPods, what makes them so interesting is the track that they hang from is lined on top with solar panels that powers the pods. Because of their small size, a JPod at full weight capacity going 30 mph uses a mere 6 kW of energy!

The Vectus PRT system looks more like a miniature subway cart that runs on a rail system. The cars are powered by a linear induction motor, or in more simple terms, a multi-phase electric motor that instead of producing torque (rotation) like a typical engine, it produces a linear force along its length. Its brakes are magnetic. The designers of the PRT write that the system can travel as fast as 60 mph, and the capacity of the line can handle between 4800 and 5760 passengers per hour, which is pretty significant. Unfortunately not too much information is available on the Vectus PRT. Their website has a nifty flash video, but it’s in Korean, so I cant understand what’s being said. (If anyone does speak Korean and has a chance to listen to the video, an informal explanation would be greatly appreciated!)

photovoltaicsSo with all these new technologies and great new designs, what does it all boil down to? We believe electric motors can and will replace gas motors. As photovoltaics become cheaper and more efficient, is it not reasonable to believe we will power our electric motors with the energy of the sun? We believe that we can and we will. The systems we went through today are certainly quite a few years away from being a reality, but let’s not forget we said the same thing about hybrid cars years ago – and we all know how quickly that changed. The bottom line: mass transportation is a necessity, so is alternative energy. When you put them together, the blending of the two sounds like an obvious success.Thomas Edison with Electric Car

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait ’til oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” – Thomas Edison

Co-Authors: Josef Newman + Aaron Newman, Urban Core International

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