When Marty McFly zoomed around his hometown on a hoverboard in the 1989 film Back To The Future, it was without doubt, the coolest mode of personal transport that cinema audiences had ever seen, but is the Back To The Future Hoverboard real?
Sadly, no. Even though we are five years further on than the future that Marty visited, there isn’t a way to ride a board above the ground at the moment. However, you can look as if you are hovering, on a hoverboard, which rolls across the ground on two wheels.
How to make a hoverboard from Back to the Future
Recently the BBC Britlab team set themselves a challenge and looked into how to make a Back to the Future hoverboard just like the one that Marty rode. They used magnets, semiconductors and liquid nitrogen. Before you get too excited, we should mention that it was only strong enough to carry a toy soldier.
It didn’t come cheap either, as the superconductor cost $700. They also used neodymium magnets, which are the strongest you can get and found in items such as computer hard drives and cordless drills. And as for liquid nitrogen, it is very, very cold. At -196° Celsius, it’s not something that should be used at home!
The liquid nitrogen is needed to cool down the superconductor, which has zero electrical resistance when it is very cold. Once it is cold enough, the superconductor will levitate above the magnets, via a process called flux pinning.
“Lines of magnetic flux pass through the superconductor and pin it in a constant position above the magnets making it float. It is better than magic as it is not an illusion, it is actually happening,” said a Britlab team member.
An American student also built a hoverboard as part of his university degree, that hovers using strong, spinning magnets, but it only works when it is above a material that conducts electricity, such as steel sheeting. The spinning magnets create electrical currents on the board and the steel causing it to float when they oppose one another.
Last year, Lexus highlighted the possibilities of hovering transport when they unveiled a hoverboard they had engineered. It too used a cold superconductor and steam shot from the sides of the board in a bid to cool it.
Elsewhere, Volvo is looking into the possibility of using magnets in roads as a way of guiding driverless cars. In Japan, China and South Korea, engineers and scientists are studying magnetic levitation, or Maglev lines. In trials, a train reached speeds of 375mph on a Maglev line in Japan.
Elon Musk is also in on the act too with his Hyperloop system, which uses magnets and fans creating a cushion of air while transport pods race through the tubes at speeds of up to 750mph.
With technology progressing at such lightening speed, it won’t be too far in the future before the Marty McFly hoverboard becomes a real thing.