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How Hoverboards Could Revolutionize Transit

How Hoverboards Could Revolutionize Transit


As a culture, we are obsessed with levitation. Whether it’s skateboards, cars, trains, bikes, or even… people. Unfortunately, most of the obvious examples here are works of fiction or trickery. Magicians use deceptive angles, Star Wars used mirrors, Total Recall used go-karts, and Looper used a pickup truck. But Lexus recently introduced a real hoverboard — and while it’s impractical and mostly a marketing gimmick — the technology behind it could actually lead to faster trains, more energy efficient cars, and hoverboards that, well, actually hover. This is Professor Matthew Sullivan. He’s a humble scientist at Ithaca College. A few years ago, Professor Sullivan got a call from a producer asking him to come on the Colbert Report. Why? Well, Colbert wanted to prove that his flavor of ice cream was more futuristic than Jimmy Fallon’s. And, as it turns out, Professor Sullivan knows how to make things levitate…for real. Colbert: Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Matthew C Sullivan Engage! It’s levitating! Voiceover: What you’re seeing is quantum levitation. the same science that Lexus uses for its hoverboard and it’s all made possible by superconductors. Professor Sullivan: This is a superconductor right here. Voiceover: At room temperature, the superconductors we have today aren’t that interesting, but… Professor Sullivan: If you get them cold enough — for example if you immerse them into liquid nitrogen — the electrons in this material enter a new state: the superconducting state. Voiceover: Basically, some superconductors have unique magnetic and electrical properties. If they are cooled in a magnetic field, they will hold onto that magnetic field. Professor Sullivan: The technical term is pinned in place. Voiceover: And the result is levitation. In addition to levitating right-side up… Professor Sullivan: You can also run it on the side. Billy: …or upside down, and the superconductor will stay the exact same distance from the track — it is LOCKED in place. That is, until it warms up. You may have seen some other types of hover technology recently. There’s the Hendo Hoverboard and then there are maglev trains like this one that was recently built in Japan. But they’re different. Professor Sullivan: They all use magnetic fields generated from electric currents above a metal sheet or a metal track to levitate above that piece of metal. Voiceover: So that super fast maglev train in Japan? While it’s an amazing progression in mass transit, it’s not the end game for magnetic transportation because it still requires a decent amount of power to create the magnetic field required for it to levitate. Professor Sullivan: This is different in that, once you get the super conductor cold, you don’t need any external power supply to keep it above the track, and to keep it suspended on the track, and to keep it guided along the track. The superconductor will do all of that for you. Voiceover: Imagine you get on a train in New York City, and in one hour you’re in Washington DC, over 200 miles away, and you did it all with minimum environmental impact. The technology Lexus is using could get us there, but there’s one big thing holding us back. Professor Sullivan: The major obstacle to that is the fact that we have not yet found superconductors that will superconduct at room temperature If we could find, or make, room temperature superconductors, it would certainly revolutionize transportation. You could easily get levitating cars, Voiceover: You could have levitating bikes, Professor Sullivan: trains, Voiceover: Maybe you could even have a broom and play Quidditch like Harry Potter? Professor Sullivan: Flying is different than levitating above a magnetic track, so Harry Potter and Quidditch is not going to happen as a result of this technology. Voiceover: Okay, but, we would all have hoverboards, right? Professor Sullivan: We would definitely have hoverboards, yeah. They still wouldn’t work on water, and the roads would have to be made out of metal. But we would definitely have hoverboards.

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