Virtual Corporation Paving Way to MagLev
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A three-year-old student education venture has developed a novel transportation technology for which Virginia Tech may start a spin-off company. Tech officials believe that the technology can solve some nationwide transit problems in an economically and environmentally sound manner.
The technology was developed by Tech's Virtual
Corporation program, which was established in 1997 by department
Head Leonard Ferrari, provides students with a new paradigm for
learning through interdisciplinary projects on issues of national
or state concern. Virtual Corporation students work within the
structure of a commercial engineering firm, and design real products,
systems, and technology, based on actual market conditions.
The DISC Virtual Corporation team has been working on medical
imaging for remote diagnostics and monitoring, while the PERTS
team has tackled transit technologies.
Ferrari asked the PERTS team to design and develop a dual-mode
personal rapid transit system to relieve traffic congestion around
the nation. The team was given freedom to explore any solutions.
In just two years, the PERTS team has developed a working prototype
of a unique switched-reluctance propulsion system that will be
the basis for a cost-effective, dual-mode, personal rapid transit
system. The system would involve personal autos that can be driven
on local roads - and driven onto palettes that provide long-distance,
The most recent PERTS data suggest that a single-track system
would be able to carry as much traffic as three to four conventional
highway lanes at one-tenth the cost. "One PERTS lane is
estimated to cost $6 million per mile, versus $46 million per
mile of a single highway lane," said Krishnan Ramu, who
has served as the Virtual Corporation program director since
inception of the program.
"This technology has immense potential to solve not only
the gridlock problems of our cities, but also help change the
face of our highways," he said. "It would help people
commute faster, reduce emissions, reduce our dependence on foreign
oil, and get people off the road in an environmentally friendly
and safe manner. It could help the commuters in Northern Virginia
or Los Angeles who lose two weeks of their time each year stopped
on the road system. That's a big national waste," he added.
PERTS has developed two small-scale prototypes with the new technology.
"We would like to build a 1/10th scale model in 12 to 18
months, and 24 months later, a regular, full-scale, two-mile-long
demonstration unit. Ideally, in four years, the technology would
be ready for a system to be installed.
"For the full-scale demonstration unit, we are hoping that
the project will be off campus," Ramu said. "It would
entail such a large magnitude of engineering design, analysis,
and testing, that it would not be feasible with student resources."
He said the university is interested in forming a public/private
partnership to manage and commercialize the technology. "We've
had exciting interest from a venture capital firm, along with
one of the largest venture capital banks in the country."
Ramu said that the spin-off effort was not planned. "I knew
we were heading to something significant, but I didn't realize
just how strong the potential is. However, there has been some
awakening here on the team and within the university leadership.
We believe the potential impact on the country's transportation
system to be tremendous. We also realize that there may be constituencies
that may not favor the introduction of the technology."
Tech, through its Foundation, could own equity in the spin-off,
and if the venture is successful, the university's endowment
could double, triple, or quadruple in just a few years, Ramu
said. "I hope that significant funds will come back to the
Virtual Corporation to further our program of educating students
in a nontraditional environment, which requires enormous faculty
and graduate student resources in order to work."
However, if the venture is successful, the benefits to Tech are
much greater than financial gain, he said. "An effort like
this can have an impact on the national economy. If students
know that past Virtual Corporation efforts had been useful, we
would see a great influx of interested students."
A successful spin-off would be a big boost to Tech's national
reputation. "Tech would gain national visibility in policy
issues that are impacted by our technology, and could assume
the role of a major university," Ramu said. "This would
attract the best students and faculty from across the nation."
He would like greater numbers of faculty and students involved
in the Virtual Corporation. "We have developed a foundation
for enabling technology," he said. "Once we spin off
this project, VC PERTS could work on many other applications
of the technology. One application is high-speed MagLev trains
without wheels. Another possibility is high-speed cargo movement
systems. Can you imagine how we can change our highways if the
truck traffic were reduced? All these ideas are feasible, given
enough time by faculty and students."
Ramu believes that such projects could possibly enhance the university's
reputation more than greater and improved research efforts by
Tech faculty. At present, the university has a number of research
groups and centers that are the top in their fields. However,
although these centers are well known in their industries, they
are not well known to the general public, he said. "If we
continue to develop system solutions that address the major issues
of society, such as transportation and health care, our reputation
would be enhanced in every sector," he said.