Star Wars (all trademarks acknowledged, but I’ll immediately remove them on request from the studios) made me a bit annoyed in the first opening seconds, when I heard the spaceship coming through space, but I did quite like their land-speeder though and I’d like to have one. Like most futurists, I get asked about flying cars every week.
Let’s dispose of pedantry first. Flying cars do exist. Some are basically vertical take off planes without the wings, using directed air jets to stay afloat and move. I guess you could use a derivative of that to make a kind of land-speeder. The hovercraft is also a bit Landspeedery, but works differently. Hovercraft are OK, but a Landspeeder floats higher off the ground and without the skirt so it it’s no hovercraft. Well, we’ll see.
This morning, well, in the middle of the night, I had an idea, as you do. Usually, ideas I have in bed tend to be total rubbish when inspected in the hard light of day. But this morning I had 3, two great, one not so great, so I can write about that one for free – the others I’ll keep for now. The less great idea is how to make a Star Wars Landspeeder or Marty McFly’s hover board from Back to the Future. Both would be almost silent, with no need for messy skirts, fans, or noisy ducted air jet engines, and could looks like the ones in the films. Or you could employ a designer and make one that looks nice.
Patrick Kiger reliably informs me that you can’t do that.
Nice article, good fun, and states more or less the current line on tech. I just beg to differ with its conclusions.
Conventional wisdom says that if it isn’t using noisy ducted air jets or hovercraft skirts, it probably has to be magnetic, as the landspeeder is meant to be anyway, so needs a special metal track. It couldn’t work on a pavement or side-walk. The article above nicely points out that you can’t use magnetic effects to levitate above concrete or asphalt. Or else it has to use anti-gravity and we don’t know how to do that yet.
Well, I pointed out a good while ago with my linear induction bicycle lane idea that you could use a McFly style hoverboard on it. My daughter’s friends were teasing me about futurists and hoverboards – that’s why.
That would work. It would be totally silent. However, the landspeeder didn’t stay on a linear induction mat laid just under the entire desert surface, did it? That would just be silly. If you had a linear induction mat laid under the entire desert surface, you’d put some sort of horse shoes on your camel and it could just glide everywhere at high speed. You wouldn’t need the landspeeder. (Getting off the track a bit here.)
So, time to explain my idea, and it isn’t anti-gravity:
You can use magnetic levitation to produce a landspeeder or hoverboard that would work on a sidewalk, pavement, road, or even a desert surface. Not water, not the way McFly did anyway. You could also make the hover tanks and everything else that silently hovers near the ground in sci-fi films. And force fields.
But… sand, asphalt and concrete aren’t made of metal.
Graphene is a really good conductor. Expensive still, but give it a few years and it’ll be everywhere. It is a superb material. With graphene, you can make thin tubes, bigger than carbon nanotubes but still small bore. You could use those to make coils around electron pipes, maybe even the pipes themselves. Electron pipes are particle guides along which you can send any kind of charged particles at high speed, keeping them confined using strong magnetic fields, produced by the coils around the pipe, a mini particle accelerator. I originally invented electron pipes as a high bandwidth (at least 10^22bit/s) upgrade for optical fibre, but they have other uses too such as on-chip interconnect, 3d biomimetic microprinting for things like graphene tubes, space elevator rope and others. In this case, they have two uses.
First you’d use a covering of the pipes on the vehicle underside to inject a strong charge flux into the air beneath the hoverboard (if you’re a sci-fi nut, you could store the energy to do this in a supercapacitor and if you’re really twisted you might even call it a flux capacitor, since it will be used in the system to make this electron flux). The result is a highly charged mass of air. Plasma. So what?
Well, you’d also use some rings of these tubes around the periphery of the vehicle to create a very strong wall of magnetic field beneath the vehicle edge. This would keep the charged air from just diffusing. In addition, you’d direct some of them downwards to create a flow of charged air that would act to repel the air inside, further keeping it confined to a higher depth, or altitude, so you could hover quite a distance off the ground.
As a quick but important aside, you should be able to use it for making layered force fields too, (using layers of separated and repelling layers of charged air. They should resist small forces trying to bend them and would certainly disrupt any currents trying to get through. But maybe they would not be mechanically strong ones. So, not strong enough to stop bullets, but enough to stop or severely disrupt charges from basic plasma weaponry, but there aren’t many of them yet so that isn’t much of a benefit. Anyway… back to the future.
Having done this, you’ll hopefully have a cushion of highly charged air under your vehicle, confined within its circumference, and some basic vents could make up for any small losses. I am guessing this air is probably highly conductive, so it could be used to generate both magnetic and electrostatic forces with the fields produced by al those coils and pipes in the vehicle.
So now, you’d basically have a high-tech, silent electromagnetic hovercraft without a skirt to hold the air in, floating above pretty much any reasonably solid surface, that doesn’t even have to be smooth. It wouldn’t even make very much draft so you wouldn’t be sitting in a dust cloud.
Propulsion would be by using a layer of electron pipes around the edge of the vehicle to thrust particles in any direction, so providing an impulse, reaction and hence movement. The forward-facing and side facing pipes would suck in air to strip the charge off with which to feed the charged air underneath. Remember that little air would be escaping so this would still be silent. Think of the surface as a flat sheet that pushes ionised air through quite fast using purely electromagnetic force.
Plan B would be to use the cover of electron pipes on the underside to create a strong downward air flow that would be smoothed and diffused by pipes doing the side cushion bit. Neither would be visible and spoil the appearance, and smooth flow could still be pretty quiet. I prefer plan A. It’s just neater.
There would be a little noise from the air turbulence created as the air flow for propulsion mixes with other air, but with a totally silent source of the air flow. So basically you’d hear some wind but not much else.
Production of the electron pipes is nicely biomimetic. Packing them closely together in the right pattern (basically the pattern they’d assume naturally if you just picked them up) and feeding carbon atoms with the right charge through them at the right intervals could let you 3D print a continuous sheet of graphene or carbon nanotube. Biomimetic since the tube would grow from the base continuously just like grass. You could even produce an extremely tall skyscraper that way. (I used to say 30km as the limit for this, but more recent figures for graphene strength suggest that might be far too conservative and structures up to 600km may be theoretically possible, but that would need a lot cleverer engineering and certainly couldn’t grow the same way).
Could it work. Yes, I think so. I haven’t built a prototype but intuitively it should be feasible. Back to the Future Part 1 takes Marty to Oct 21, 2015. If we really wanted, a really good lab could just about make most and maybe all of this capability by then. On the other hand, Star Wars is set very far away and very long ago, so we’re a bit late for that one.