OLYMPIA, Wash. – Karl Lamb floated a bright red Corvette on an invisible magnetic field Wednesday, using a treasured symbol of American automotive technology to sell a vision of people and goods gliding in near silence across the landscape.
Officially, the inventor was in Olympia to drum up research and development money for Levx, a new magnetic rail technology that suspends rail cars above the track without electricity.
But what he held out was a tantalizing vision for traffic-clogged Washington: a frictionless rail system that would use a tiny amount of power while cutting noise, pollution and traffic congestion.
Similar trains in Europe and Japan use powerful electromagnets. Such systems are expensive, power-hungry and require constant maintenance, Lamb said. He said he dodges those problems by using magnets that repel one another.
Typically, such magnets lose their power over time, but Lamb said he's figured out a way to keep his cars floating an inch above their tracks for thousands of years.
"We've fooled the magnets into thinking they're attracting," said Lamb, the founder and president of Magna Force, Inc., a Port Angeles-based company that develops various applications for permanent magnets.
The company said it has kept a 12-foot-long, 3,000-pound platform suspended in air for nine months.
To protect his trade secrets, Lamb wouldn't say exactly how such a train would be propelled.
The track wouldn't be electrified and his prototype platform doesn't actually touch the track. However, moving an object that doesn't have to overcome friction with the ground takes far less energy than moving a vehicle on wheels. Lamb said he was able to propel himself along a test track with an ordinary desk fan.
The floating Corvette drew a crowd on the Capitol campus Wednesday. Gov. Gary Locke easily moved the car-laden platform down the track with one hand.
"The weight that I was just pushing?" Locke asked.
"It's 2,000 pounds," Lamb responded.
Locke praised Lamb's innovation, but didn't hold out much hope that the state would provide the $30 million he's seeking to develop a full-fledged light rail system.
"That's really an appropriate role for the federal government," Locke said.
Lamb figures the next phase of the project, building a 1,500-foot test track to move people at 20 to 40 mph, will cost about $7.5 million. After that: light rail that would travel at speeds of as much as 100 mph.
Lamb estimates track would cost about $2 million per mile, a figure he hopes to cut to $1 million over time.