“Jugend forscht” federal prize for young researchers – An outstanding scientific achievement for two high-school students with support from the SNI

Alex Korocencev and Felix Sewing have been awarded the 2019 “Jugend forscht” federal prize in the area of technology for the development of an magnetically levitated train.

Felix Sewing and Alex Korocencev have been awarded the 2019 “Jugend forscht” federal prize in the area of technology. Over the last year, the two young researchers have received support from the SNI and the Department of Physics. Everyone involved had a chance to join the two prizewinners in raising a toast to this amazing achievement at a reception in late July, where they also enjoyed a demonstration and explanation of the concept behind the magnetically levitated (maglev) train.

An interest that began in school
Felix Sewing and Alex Korocencev’s passion for technology and physics began back in 10th grade, when they were tasked with building a mechanical hand at their high school in Waldshut, Germany. The teacher supervising the project was so impressed with the results that he wished he had submitted it to the “Jugend forscht” competition for young researchers.

“That gave us the idea of planning a project for Jugend forscht,” says Felix in our interview. “We were inspired by Elon Musk’s Hyperloop project and came up with the idea of developing a model of a maglev train. Specifically, we wanted to develop and build a prototype that didn’t require elaborate construction work for the tracks,” Alex explains.

SNI becomes a project sponsor
Then, just over a year ago, Alex attended a tour of Professor Christian Schönenberger’s laboratory at the SNI. He found the subject matter discussed there in relation to quantum phenomena fascinating, but above all he wanted to know whether Christian Schönenberger was able and willing to provide support for the maglev train project. A meeting was arranged so that Alex and Felix could explain their plans before drafting a project application. They won over Christian Schönenberger with their enthusiasm and were promised financial and technical assistance.

At first glance, the planned concept sounds simple. Rotating permanent magnets on the bottom of the maglev train allow it to hover above an underlying metallic surface. In this surface, the rotating magnetic field induces a current that generates an opposing magnetic field. Repulsion between the two fields causes the train to levitate, and the magnets can be tilted in order to propel the vehicle. Unlike existing maglev trains, this model does not require coils in the tracks below in order to hover, and instead simply uses a non-magnetic metallic surface.

Success thanks to careful observations
The project didn’t get off to an entirely smooth start, however, despite support from Christian Schönenberger, the technology group, and the electronic and mechanical workshops of the Department of Physics. For example, there were some minor – and some not so minor – mishaps due to the magnets’ tendency to become loose as they rotated, making the train highly unstable. But Alex and Felix didn’t let that put them off and ultimately achieved a breakthrough by making careful observations. They realized that the circle of magnets, which were each rotated 90 degrees from the next, “didn’t want” to lie horizontally in a plane. Every second magnet was always shifted slightly upwards. “We were puzzled at first, but when we decided to adopt this stable arrangement and put it to the test, it turned out to work much better,” they explain.

Still, the two young researchers weren’t content with simply building the prototype of a stable maglev train. Alex in particular was fascinated with the idea of simulating and modeling the planned experiments in advance. To this end, the Department of Physics gave him access to simulation software as well as computer time at the Department. “The simulations that Alex ran independently are really quite sophisticated,” says Christian Schönenberger, who found himself increasingly impressed with the researchers’ persistence, enthusiasm, and professionalism over the course of the project.

Culminating in a national victory
The jurors at “Jugend forscht” clearly had the same impression. In June 2019, the winners of the year’s regional competitions gathered in Chemnitz to battle it out for the national prize. At a glamorous ceremony opened by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and slightly reminiscent of an Oscars’ awards ceremony, their long journey culminated in a dream come true: Alex and Felix won first prize in the technology category – and, with it, a research prize from the German Research Foundation!

But this success story is anything but over. The two 18-year-olds – who, incidentally, have also completed their high school diplomas this year – have filed a patent application for their new magnet arrangement. And, in September, they will attend the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in Sofia, where they hope to outstrip the competition once again.

In July, staff of the SNI and Departement of Physics could raise a toast to this amazing achievement and discuss with Alex and Felix their concept behind the magnetically levitated train.

However, before the young researchers from Waldshut return to their technical and scientific work on the maglev train, they’ve had a few opportunities to celebrate this outstanding achievement – including at an event hosted by the SNI in Basel in late July. “You embarked upon a complicated journey of discovery, driven by your thirst to overcome hurdles and get to grips with technical and scientific problems. With a healthy dose of passion and enthusiasm, you were able to tackle a series of obstacles and ultimately break new ground,” said Christian Schönenberger as he congratulated Alex and Felix on successfully reaching this milestone in the project.

We’ll be able to witness the next chapter in this story first-hand, as Alex will be studying physics in Basel from this September. And, who knows, perhaps Felix will also feel the urge to return to the University of Basel after training as an IT specialist. In any event, we hope Alex and Felix enjoy their ongoing research endeavors – and we wish them every success!

You can learn more about Alex and Felix’s project in a short video (in German).