Holy moly these things could be absolutely wild
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Top Gear rides the Lexus hoverboard
Dan Read marshals his inner Marty McFly to try out an actual, real-life hoverboard
A real-life hoverboard, you say?
That’s right. As predicted in Back to the Future (Part II), 2015 is the year in which the flying skateboard finally becomes a reality. Many have tried to convert this teenage fantasy into science-fact, but it’s taken nearly 30 years for anyone to make a working version. For this we can thank Lexus, and a team of Germans with an unsociable knowledge of magnetic levitation, or maglev – the sort of black magic that makes Japanese bullet trains float over their tracks.
It’s a fake!
Hush your conspiracy theories – it’s absolutely real, and it can be explained with a quick lesson in quantum mechanics. Are you ready? Here goes.
When you cool certain materials to extremely low temperatures, in this case -197°C, they become ‘superconductive’. If you position them near a magnet during the cooling process, they oust the magnetic field and effectively remember their position relative to the magnet.
In other words, the superconductor memorises a set gap and – so long as it stays cold – could ‘levitate’ there forever. This is actually a bit different to maglev train tech, which relies on electromagnets for lift and propulsion, but you get the idea.
So the hoverboard is a superconductor?
Yes. Inside is a ceramic material cooled by liquid nitrogen, which ‘floats’ about 2cm above a magnetic track buried in the ground. The steam you see pouring from the sides is actually water vapour, produced as the superconductor gradually heats up in the sunshine. That explains a) why a man keeps wiping the bamboo deck with a tissue, and b) the shiny tanks of nitrógeno líquido beside our Spanish skate park.
Are you going to ride it?
I’ll try, but according to Ross McGouran – the pro skater employed to master this thing for the video – it’s a bit… challenging. He was supposed to be doing a demo, but yesterday fell off and almost broke his ankle. Today he’s hobbling around, pretending he’s fine, and providing a shoulder to lean on.
He tells me that the whole board teeters on a magnetic balance point just one centimetre wide, running lengthways down the middle. So rather than adopting the posture of a surfer, you should actually imagine that you’re walking on a tightrope, with your toes pointing along the board.
Go on then…
You must make microscopic movements and rely on strong core muscles to stay upright and steady – place your weight just slightly to one side of the imaginary central line and the board will wobble. Unfortunately I have the core strength of a suet pudding, and as I step onto the board it begins to tremble.
Even when Ross takes my hands (he’s a romantic soul) and I find my balance, I just stand there, not moving or doing anything especially useful. So I lean forwards slightly, hoping to coax the board into some kind of motion, but it stays put like a stubborn, planky horse.
Can you try a bit harder?
I also try mounting it at speed, so I can now tell you exactly what concrete tastes like, until eventually Ross walks alongside and guides me along. I make some progress and enjoy a brief, frictionless glide before my ankles hurt and my shins burn from the effort. With a bit more practice I’d be flying around like Marty McFly, enjoying a magic carpet ride from the future.
So it works!
Just watch the video, shot before Ross damaged himself. He zips around at considerable speed, following the magnets hidden under the purpose-built track. The hardest thing, he reckons, was nailing the jump from one ramp to another. The break in the track meant summoning the physical effort to “leave the force field” and land it back on the thin magnetic strip.
In fact, if he were to maintain perfect balance, he’d go round and round forever due to an almost complete lack of resistance. Ultimately it might be slowed by the air, but we’re talking about miniscule deceleration. To demonstrate this, the scientists give it a push, and off it goes, set in perpetual motion.
What’s the point?
On one level it’s a bit of Lexus brand drama to demonstrate the company’s philosophy of “making impossible possible”. The video will be shown around the world on various channels, and cool kids will think it’s super. Whether that translates into anything meaningful in car showrooms is arguable, but who cares, because they’ve just built a bloody hoverboard.
OK, so a liquid-nitrogen-cooled superconductor that travels exclusively along magnetic tracks isn’t the most practical transport solution, but the technology has other potential. You could use it, for example, to move and examine radioactive material without touching it, or to move things down a production line without the need for electrical power, which could save factories millions on energy bills.
Whether or not those factories make posh Japanese cars with manga faces remains to be seen.