Rail guns use powerful, electronically controlled magnets to accelerate objects.
Rail guns use electromagnets to accelerate objects to great speeds — generally greater than several times the speed of sound. For this reason, they’re a popular topic in science fiction and video games. But rail guns are a real-world phenomenon, and there are many dimensions of rail guns that can be explored in a science project, requiring varying degrees of skill in math, physics and hands-on construction.
Building a Model Rail Gun
One of the best ways to demonstrate the principles behind rail gun technology is to build a model. A low-powered rail gun requires some knowledge of electronics and the materials (like a soldering iron and appropriate capacitors) to put it together, but is an effective — if dramatic — science project. Even a nonfunctional model can show the principles behind how a rail gun works.
Uses for Rail Guns
Beyond their use as a future weapon, linear accelerators and electromagnetic catapults using similar technology have been proposed as an alternative to the rockets currently used to lift satellites and people into orbit. A science project exploring the uses of rail guns can look at how they stack up against other orbital technologies. You can explain how much power they require, and whether this is more efficient than existing methods.
Rail Guns in Popular Culture
A fun and engaging science project involving rail guns focuses on their appearances in popular culture. Electromagnetic technology has long been a staple of science fiction. Award-winning author Robert Heinlein proposed using a rail gun or coil gun as a means of transportation in his novel “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and many video games allow players to wield a “rail gun.” A science project can discuss what these depictions get right, what they get wrong and the accuracy of their vision of rail guns.
Current State of Rail Guns
One way to increase understanding of rail guns is to look at the current level of rail gun research, both by governments and by DIY enthusiasts and hobbyists. You can present on possible future applications of rail guns. For example, the United States Navy is considering the development of a line of ships equipped with rail gun technology. Explain what changes have been made in the last decade of research, and where rail gun researchers see the technology developing.