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Magnetic levitation breakthrough unlocks gravity-free technology

Magnetic levitation technology takes an innovative leap forward with researchers at the Quantum Machines Unit of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) pushing the boundaries of this cutting-edge field.

Their research delves into materials that defy gravity by remaining suspended without any physical support.

The wide-ranging implications of their work offer exciting glimpses into the future, promising revolutionary advances in sensors and measurement technologies.

What is magnetic levitation?

Magnetic levitation, often termed as maglev, is a method of suspending objects in air without any physical contact, purely through the use of magnetic fields.

This innovative phenomenon exploits the magnetic repulsion or attraction between magnets and materials that are naturally repelled by magnetic fields (diamagnetic materials) or those that become magnetized in the presence of a magnetic field.

At its core, magnetic levitation counteracts the force of gravity, allowing objects, ranging from trains to small platforms, to float.


Maglev trains stand out as the most celebrated use of magnetic levitation. This technology leverages magnetic forces to lift and move the trains, effectively removing ground friction. As a result, maglev trains can travel much faster than traditional trains.

The absence of friction leads to smoother and more efficient rides. Ultimately, maglev trains showcase the potential for a new era in transportation, characterized by unprecedented speed and efficiency.

In the realm of research and development, magnetic levitation holds promise for revolutionizing sensor technology.

By levitating in a controlled environment without physical contact, sensors can achieve higher sensitivities and accuracies, crucial for precision measurements in various scientific and industrial fields.

This cutting-edge approach opens new avenues for advancements in technology and science, demonstrating the limitless potential of magnetic levitation.

The essence of magnetic levitation

At the heart of this research lies the phenomenon of magnetic levitation. As discussed, this principle already underpins technologies like maglev trains.

However, the OIST team is pushing it to new limits. Led by Prof. Jason Twamley, the researchers have crafted a floating platform that operates independently of any external power sources.

This platform, fashioned from graphite and magnets within a vacuum, represents a significant step towards the development of ultra-sensitive sensors.

Levitating against the odds

The journey to achieving stable levitation is fraught with obstacles. The primary hurdle is ‘eddy damping’, a form of energy loss that occurs in oscillating systems.

Traditionally, this phenomenon has presented a challenge for using magnetic levitation in sensor development. The issue lies in the energy loss that electrical conductors, such as graphite, experience when exposed to strong magnetic fields.

In response, the OIST team embarked on an ambitious project to create a platform that can float and oscillate indefinitely without additional energy input.

Achieving a ‘frictionless’ state for the platform opens up a world of possibilities, from force and acceleration sensors to gravity measurements with unprecedented precision.

Graphite boosts magnetic levitation

The secret to their success lies in a new material derived from graphite, chemically altered to transform it into an electrical insulator. This innovation halts energy losses while maintaining levitation capabilities.

Subsequently, through meticulous experimentation, the researchers have not only managed to levitate the platform but also to control its oscillations. They achieve this by applying feedback magnetic forces, which effectively cool down its motion.

Expanding on this, Prof. Twamley explains the process: “Heat causes motion, but by continuously monitoring and providing real-time feedback, we can decrease this movement. This active control reduces the system’s kinetic energy, cooling it down and making it more sensitive for use as a sensor.”

The future of precision measurements

The potential applications of this technology are profound. Additionally, if sufficiently cooled, the levitating platform could surpass the sensitivity of the most advanced atomic gravimeters. These instruments rely on atomic behavior to measure gravity.

To achieve such precision, isolating the platform from external disturbances is essential, a challenge that Twamley’s team is dedicated to overcoming.

Beyond sensing

But the ambitions of the Quantum Machines Unit extend beyond sensor technology. Prof. Twamley envisions utilizing levitating materials to construct mechanical oscillators with applications across a broad spectrum of fields.

Moreover, this research advances our understanding of magnetic levitation and paves the way for innovations. It opens new doors in sensor technology and beyond.

In their quest to harness the full potential of levitating platforms, the team at OIST is not just floating ideas; they are elevating them to new heights, promising a future where the boundaries of science and technology continue to expand.

The full study was published in the journal Applied Physics Letters.


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