Science Lesson: Hoverboarding with Lenz’s Law

Posted: March 12, 2015 in Science Lesson
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“Where’s my hoverboard?” is something I often hear when people complain about things we should have already by now.  It’s become more common now that it’s 2015, the year in which Back to the Future Part II takes place.  Fear not, science has not completely broken its promise.

Last November, a video of Tony Hawk riding a Hendo Hoverboard prototype on a halfpipe surfaced.

I found the accompanying RIDE Channel article, which piqued my interest in the science behind the hoverboard. Although it brought up magnetic repulsion, the Hendo Hoverboard Kickstarter revealed that the physics are a bit complicated. After all, it’s nearly impossible to levitate one magnet on top of another without special conditions.

That’s also true for the Hendo Hoverboard, which is why it’s not quite ready for every day use. The board contains four magnetic engines. They generate eddy currents, which create a magnetic field in opposition to the field created by the engine. The opposing forces causes the board to be repelled by the surface. This is called Lenz’s law. Check out a smaller, more up-close example of how the engines work:

One big caveat to the hoverboard is the surface you ride on has to be made of a non-ferrous (does not contain iron) conductor. Therefore, you can’t ride it outside of the Arx Pax or a hypothetical “hoverpark”. Another issue, as seen with Tony Hawk’s ride, is control of the direction of travel. Despite having pressure-sensitive pads on the deck, the lack of friction makes it hard to figure out how much pressure to apply. It seems to be extra sensitive. Lastly, the biggest issue is that for now, we can only ride it for a few minutes before the battery runs out.

So we’re going to have to wait a bit before we all fly around on hoverboards. However, the idea of one has already made its way into reality. Moreover, we can take comfort in knowing that there are some things from Back to the Future Part II that did come true in a way.

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