There are some technological ideas that captivate the public consciousness, our want for them to exist outstripping any ideas of practicality or usability. Chief among such ideas is the flying car, the seemingly amazing idea which, should it ever become mainstream, poses far more issues than it could ever solve. Still there have been numerous companies who have worked towards making that idea a reality with nearly all of them meeting the same fate. A close second (or third, if you’re more a jetpack fan) is the hoverboard, a device that replicates the functionality of a skateboard without the wheels. Our collective desire for something like that is what results in videos like the following and, honestly, they give me the shits:
Anyone who’s followed technology like this knows that a hoverboard, one that can glide over any surface, simply isn’t possible with our current understanding of physics and level of technological advancement. However if you grab a couple powerful electromagnets and put them over a metallic surface you can make yourself a decent simulacrum of what a hoverboard might be, it just can’t leave that surface. Indeed there’s been a few of these kinds of prototypes in the past and, whilst they’re cool and everything, they’re not much more than a demonstration of what a magnet can do.
This is where Lexus comes in with their utterly deceptive bullshit.
Just over a month ago Lexus put out this site showing a sleek looking board that was billowing smoke out its sides, serenely hovering a few inches above the ground. The media went ballistic, seemingly forgetting about what would be required to make something of this nature and the several implementations that came before it. Worst still the demonstration videos appeared to show the hoverboard working on regular surfaces, just like the ones in the movies that captured everyone’s imaginations. Like all good publicity stunts however the reality is far from what the pictures might tell and I lay the blame squarely at Lexus for being coy about the details.
You see the Lexus hoverboard is no different to the others that came before it, it still uses magnets and requires a special surface in order to work. Lexus built that entire set just to demonstrate the hoverboard and was mum about the details because they knew no one would care if they knew the truth. Instead they kept everything secret, making many people believe that they had created something new when in reality they hadn’t, all they did was put a larger marketing budget behind it.
Maybe I’ve just become an old cynic who hates fun but, honestly, I really got the shits with Lexus and the wider public’s reaction to this malarkey. Sure it looks cool, what with the slick design and mist cascading over the sides, but that’s about where it ends. Everything past that is Lexus engaging in deceptive marketing tactics to make us think it’s more than it is rather than being straight up about what they did. Of course they likely don’t care about what a ranty blogger on a dark corner of the Internet thinks, especially since he’s mentioned their brand name 10 times in one post, but I felt the need to say my peace, even if it wouldn’t change anything.
Everyone is familiar with the traditional bar magnet, usually painted in red and blue denoting the north and south poles respectively.You’re also likely familiar with their behaviour, put opposite poles next to each other and they’ll attract but put the same poles next to each other and they repel. If you’ve taken this one step further and played around with iron filings (or if you’re really lucky a ferrofluid) you’ll be familiar with the magnetic field lines that magnets generate, giving you some insight into why magnets function the way they do. What you’re not likely familiar with is magnets that have had their polarity printed onto them which results in some incredible behaviour.
The demonstrations they have with various programmed magnets are incredibly impressive as they exhibit behaviour that you wouldn’t expect from a traditional magnet. Whilst some of the applications they talk about seem a little pie in the sky at their current scaling (like the frictionless gears, since the amount of torque they could handle is directionally proportional to field strength) a lot of the others would appear to have immediate commercial applications. The locking magnets for instance seem like they’d be great solution for electronic locks although maybe not for your front door just yet.
What I’d be interested to see is how scalable their process is and whether or not that same programmability could be applied to electromagnets as well. The small demonstrator magnets that they have show what the technology is capable of doing however there are numerous applications that would require much bigger and bulkier versions of them. Similarly electromagnets, which are widely used for all manner of things, could benefit greatly from programmed magnetic fields. With the fundamentals worked out though I’m sure this is just an engineering challenge and that’s the easy part, right?
I’ve always appreciated the simple beauty of Zen gardens, mostly from afar as my natural instinct is to run directly to the perfectly groomed sand and mess it all up. That being whilst I may have kindled an interest in gardening recently (thanks to my wife giving me some chilli plants for Christmas) I have very little interest in creating one of these myself, even of the desktop variety. The video below however demonstrates a kind of Zen garden that I could very well see myself spending numerous hours, mostly because it’s driven by some simple, but incredibly cool, science.
On the surface it seems like a relatively simple mechanism of action, two steel balls roll their away across the sand and produce all sorts of patterns along the way. The reality of it is quite a bit more interesting however as, if you watch closely, you can see that the two steel balls’ motion is linked together around a single point of motion. This is because, as Core77’s post shows, there’s only a single arm underneath the table which most likely houses 2 independent magnets that are able to slide up and down its length. In all honesty this is far more impressive to me than how I would’ve approached the problem as it makes producing the complex patterns that much more challenging. If it was left to me I would’ve had a huge array of magnets underneath the surface, but that seems like cheating after seeing this.
I’ve never really been one for trains, neither those that serve as public transport or their diminutive brethren that grace the basements of many, but the technology behind some of them is quite impressive. Indeed you can’t go past the Shinkansen of Japan, trains that are so fast that they regularly compete with airlines for the same passengers and have recently achieved astonishing speeds. However beneath all the technical wizardry that powers those impressive machines lies some incredibly simple physical principles, ones that can be replicated with some copper wire, a couple magnets and a battery:
The way it works is incredibly simple. The “car” of the train is made up of a couple high-strength magnets that are oriented in the same direction, ensuring that their magnetic fields flow in the same direction. Then when the car is placed onto the track of coiled wire they help complete a circuit with the coil of wire around it. This then creates a magnetic field around the car and the resultant force between it and the permanent magnets results in a force that’s vectored forward. However the time it will be able to do this is limited however as the creation of the magnetic field consumes power from the battery. Most estimates online have the run time somewhere around 30 minutes or so from a typical alkaline AA battery.
Indeed one interesting thing about this train is that it relies on the high internal resistance of regular alkaline batteries to function properly. You see a typical battery has what amounts to a current limiter inside it, preventing anything from drawing current too fast from it. If they used say a NiCd style battery, which has an incredibly low internal resistance, I can see the results being either much more spectacular (like the car flying around the track) or catastrophic (like the battery overheating and the wire melting). Actually now I’m kinda curious about what would actually happen.
Now where’s that old battery charger of mine…
Whilst it’s always fun to quote the Insane Clown Posse’s single Miracles the answer to the question they posit, how do magnets work, is something that I myself had not completely understood. Most engineering students will know the relationship that electric currents and magnetism share but ask any of them to explain how natural magnets work and you’d likely get the same blank stare and jumbled answer I would have given before I had watched the video below:
What really fascinated me about natural magnets is the fact that its one of the few natural phenomena that can only be explained on a quantum level. This is likely the reason why the mechanism isn’t common knowledge as some of this stuff was above even my university level experience (although I was hardly a physics or hard science major). This new found understanding hasn’t exactly changed how I view the world but its certainly going to be a great little conversation topic come my next meeting with my more nerdy brethren.