Skateboard? That’s So 20thCentury. The Hoverboard Has Arrived to Take Us Back to the Future.
Remember Back to the Future, the 1985 sci-fi-fantasy comedy? No? How about Back to the Future II, the 1989 sequel? Well, even if you don’t, suffice to say that it envisioned a future where skateboards had given way to hoverboards. In the movie they’re marketed by Mattel Toys, and when the young hero from the past, played by Michael J. Fox (who actually was young once) gets one and sets about flying on it, it captured the imaginations of a generation of sci-fi geeks and tech nerds. The futuristic year this was supposed to take place in the movie was 2016. Now it looks like technology may have finally caught up with that retro- future.
There have actually been various attempts at creating a working hoverboard, each one attaining its own limited effectiveness. The Hendo Hoverboard was a version that just last year received considerable publicity and looked most promising. Creating a magnetic field through four disc-shaped engines on the board, it did actually levitate, though it proved not a smooth enough ride for the average skateboarder. Still, it was a step in the right direction – off the ground. Enter the Lexus hoverboard: high-tech, sleek, quiet and smooth – the way we like our future. The sub-brand of Japanese car manufacturer, Toyota Motor Corporation, Lexus recently announced the development of a functioning levitating hoverboard. Skateboarders were invited to Barcelona to test ride it, and so far, so cool.
The technology behind, or under, the hoverboard isn’t itself new. Rather it’s a new application of superconducting magnetic levitation, or “maglev.” The hoverboard is constructed from an insulated core containing high temperature superconducting blocks. These are housed in liquid nitrogen reservoirs that supercool the superconductors to -197°C. The board is then placed above a track containing permanent magnets, and when the board cools to its operating temperature, the track’s magnetic flux lines are set in place, keeping the hoverboard suspended. It took months of testing to transform the maglev technology into a working track and board system – building the tracks, figuring out the perfect amount of lift, and of course test-riding the hoverboard. At this stage, the one major limitation to the Lexus hoverboard is that can only operate on a track that has a metal layer running beneath its surface, or it would drop like a brick. (The same was true with the Hendo version.) With the requisite magnetic forces at work, depending on the rider’s weight, the board hovers from one to two inches off the ground. Oh, and it leaves a cool-looking trail of icy vapor.
Given the specialized track, the Lexus hoverboard can even work on water, outdoing the one in Back to the Future. Unlike the movie’s Mattel version, Toyota isn’t yet planning to manufacture and sell their hoverboard commercially, though no doubt, it’s just a matter of time. The very day the prototype was released Toyota was averaging 1,000 tweets an hour on Twitter. In the meantime, for those of us who haven’t been invited to Barcelona to try the hoverboard, a video follows to get you hovering. As Lexus Chief Engineer Haruhiko Tanahashi says, “There is no such thing as impossible, it's just a matter of figuring out how.”