A mechanical transmission with no touching parts?


September 21, 2010

The MAGDRIVE project is tasked with developing a touchless transmission

The MAGDRIVE project is tasked with developing a touchless transmission

Satellites and other spacecraft, like most machines, have parts that move against one another. Unlike most machines, however, they operate in extremely cold conditions, their power source is often very limited, and lubricating or repairing them are not exactly easy tasks. It is for these reasons that researchers at Spain’s Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) are coordinating the three-year MAGDRIVE project – an international effort to create a mechanical transmission with no touching parts, that doesn’t need any lubrication.

There would be several advantages to such a system. For one thing, conventional lubricants freeze solid at the cryogenic temperatures (around -200C/-328F) of outer space. Then, even if they could stay fluid, there’s the whole question of how to reapply them in space – this is a particularly valid point for unmanned spacecraft. Even when lubricated, interlocking moving components ultimately wear each other down, so fixing the spacecraft also becomes an issue.

Finally, there’s the matter of energy efficiency. According to the UC3M researchers, regular transmissions sacrifice over half of their energy simply overcoming friction. A touchless transmission wouldn’t encounter any friction, so presumably would use very little power.

At this early point in the project, all that is being stated regarding how such a transmission would work is that it would involve magnetism. While the goal of MAGDRIVE is to allow spacecraft to operate for years with no maintenance or repairs, the researchers believe that it could also have applications here on Earth, such as in CT and MRI machines.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Spacecraft, CT and MRI machines!!! If they can pull this off, I see a different breed of CAR! Think about it: if this new drive would be that power-efficient, maybe a car could go thousands of miles on a single charge. And with renewable energy technologies improving all the time too, I can even imagine a car that never needs to be charged anymore.


This looks more like a limited slip clutch then a gear reduction. In order to change speeds or load with mechanical means you have to change leverage. Currently the only 2 alternatives to transmit power are compressed air, hydraulics and electric. The best solution would a Hydrogen fuel cell Motor. Hydrogen is the power and the electric is the transmission.


Transmission only 50% eff tells me this article is a joke. Magnetic transmission have been used for a century and every day in trains, ships and many other places. But such units pose problems on spacecraft as the magnetism can riun sensor readings, etc.


Magnetic drives or clutches are nothing new. They were used in cranes as a way to make a smooth clutch with infinite, even control for swing or rotation. The clutches weren\'t that great compared to friction clutches which had much more power although not as smooth as magnetic. The magnetic clutches were also power hogs compared to friction clutches. Maybe research and development can bring forward some new ideas in this field. Think what Leonardo could have done with magnetic drives. Ha


Don, I agree. We already have this in place. Get rid of the transmission like we have done in some electric vehicles. But I think they also want to get rid of the friction between the motor gear meshing the drive component gear. Removing the transmission takes care of most of the friction but not all of it.

Satellites have very different needs than cars and operate under very different conditions as well. If they find the solution for one, it still may not work for the other.

Raum Bances

It might be possible to make an automotive gas turbine with magnetic bearings, but pistons require rubbing against cylinder walls to maintain pressure resulting from compression and combustion.

Hydrogen isn\'t \"fuel,\" there are no vast underground pools of the stuff, it has to be manufactured by electrolyzing water or hydrocarbons, both requiring considerably more energy than can be obtained from the resulting refined hydrogen. At best it\'s \"energy storage,\" and not very efficient at that. Hydrogen isn\'t EVER going to be cheap, even if made using sea water and powered by vast arrays of solar panels or wind generators. That may become necessary eventually, but it\'s still erroneous to speak of hydrogen as \"fuel.\"

Methane would be a better fuel choice, as it can be extracted as a waste product of biological processes, or butanol made from agricultural crop residue (that would be bio-butanol), or better still propanol or bio-propanol (same energy content as gasoline but not yet as easily manufactured as butanol).

William Lanteigne

If you would like to see some of the advantages of magnetics in space, take a look at:

This mechanism switches the optical filter in a beam path in 30 milliseconds, using almost no power and producing almost no vibration. Mechanisms of this nature can be used for many other applications, as well. The goals of the researchers in Spain are quite valid.

Jim Fiske

As an engineer at NASA in the 1970\'s I designed magnetic bearings. NASA Tech Memo 78048. Since retireing in 1989 I developed an improved MAGLEV system US7,617,779. More recently, I have a patent pending US 11/510,818 on a non-contacting high reduction rotary to linear converter which may have direct application to your task. If you feel I could cotribute to your effort, I would like to participate in it. Phil 3126Gracefield Rd 209,SilverSpring Md 20904 USA

Phil Studer

Guess I missed something here. They have been using, still are using \"mag\" transmissions for the last 60 years in American industry. It\'s called an eddy current clutch, so what is so spectacular about this?

Max L. Ketcham

I can\'t find any such \'Magdrive\' program. There\'s a better-detailed version of this story at: Going by that, I would think that this site would have the info: Searching their Space theme yields 54 total projects, none of which have anything to do with a frictionless or magnetic drive-train. It\'s possible that this program is still waiting approval. And it\'s possible that this technology will depend on cryogenic temperatures to function, so any thought of this being used for the terrestrial automobile is going well beyond the scope of the article.

Shadetree Engineer

While the speculation here seems to be about eddy currents, I suspect that space applications would favor strongly diamagnetic materials interacting with magnetic fields. This could yield HTSC based transmissions that work like one part electric moter, on part mag-lev. Ultimatly this would be more stable than a coupled magnet system, or magnet-conductor system by allowing magnetic fields to remain more consistant during opperation.

Charles Bosse
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