Back to the future: we take a ride on Lexus's hoverboard
Top Gear tries out the floating future, finds it’s trickier than it looks
Just 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 convincing, 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. Conspiracy theorists are crying hoax, but believe us, it’s absolutely real and we’re going to ride it. But first, a quick lesson in quantum mechanics.Advertisement - Page continues below
When you cool certain materials to extremely low temperatures, in this case -197°C, they become superconductive. If you position them near an especially strong 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 from maglev train tech, which relies on electromagnets for lift and propulsion, but you get the idea.
So, inside the hoverboard is a ceramic material cooled by liquid nitrogen, which ‘floats’ about 2cm above a magnetic track buried in the ground. What you see pouring from the sides is 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 skatepark.
As the science swirls around my mind like chalk dust, I’m invited to have a go. So far the only person to ride it properly is pro skater Ross McGouran. 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. Here goes then…Advertisement - Page continues below
Ross 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.
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 central line and the board will wobble. Unfortunately I have the core strength of a cream pudding, and as I step onto the board it begins to tremble.
Even when Ross takes my hands and I find my balance, I just stand there, not moving or doing anything 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.
I also try mounting it at speed, so I can now tell you 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 shins burn from the effort. With a bit more practice I’m sure I’d be flying around like Marty McFly, enjoying a magic carpet ride from the future.
Before he fell off, Ross had more luck, zipping around at considerable speed, following the magnets hidden under the purpose-built track. The hardest thing, he said, 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, the board might be slowed by the air itself, but Earth’s ground-level atmosphere isn’t exactly soupy, so unless you encounter a strong headwind, we’re talking about minuscule deceleration. To demonstrate this, the scientists give the riderless board a push, and off it goes, in near-perpetual motion.
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 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.
Or just pretend you’re a teenager with a weird mate called Emmett and a shiny time-machine car that takes you to any given point in the history of the universe. We’d forgive you.