The DeLorean time machine from "Back to the Future" made a cameo during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, carrying Christopher Lloyd in character as the mad scientist Doc Brown he played in the film series. Despite all technology exhibited during the CES, the show lacked the hover technology from "Back to the Future II" that allowed the DeLorean to fly. The movie, which was filmed in 1989, featured hovering cars and skateboards in the year 2015. We have crockpots connected to smartphones but we still probably won't see hoverboards or flying cars at the next CES.
Designing flying cars by 2015 may have been a high expectation. Companies are designing self-driving cars, but Nissan Motor Company says it could take until 2020 before regulations and safety precautions are cleared to make them ready for highways. A smaller hoverboard seems more realistic, though. Designers have innovated flying drones and miniaturized computer technology, so the electronics needed to make a hoverboard are within reach, says Patrick Tucker, spokesman for the World Future Society think tank.
"A flying drone is a great example of a hoverboard that does not need a person," Tucker says. "Absent a good power source we absolutely have everything we need to make a hoverboard." The catch is to make an energy source powerful and safe enough to fly and carry a person, Tucker says. Engineers at the University of Tokyo and the Nagoya Institute of Technology are also developing ultrasonic speaker gear that can levitate small objects. Power to fuel hover technology like that and carry a person over different terrain was still a tricky issue for time traveler Marty McFly in "Back to the Future II," when he discovered hoverboards were not powerful enough to work on water.
"What's keeping us from our hoverboards is a power problem," Tucker says. "It's the grand problem of the 21st century: insufficient power to meet our wildest technological ambitions, even in the presence of other technological breakthroughs."
It's a good thing the 2015 of "Back to the Future" also has fusion. There are signs for "Fusion Industries" during the 2015 scenes in the film and the DeLorean has a "Mr. Fusion home energy reactor." The DeLorean engine runs on gas, but it is definitely possible that its hover jets are powered by fusion. The quick science of it is that physicists are working on a way to efficiently merge atoms and harness the energy from those reactions, like the Sun does.
Fusion power for commercial use is getting closer to a reality, but it will be too late to create fusion energy in time for 2015, says François Waelbroeck, the director of the Institute for Fusion Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Scientists from different nations are working on an International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France, with the goal of creating an efficient fusion reaction using magnets. Waelbroeck predicts that the ITER could generate 5 to 10 times more energy than is put into it by 2030- if funding remains sufficient.
"My point of view, and it is not a majority point of view, is that the amount of money we are spending on fusion right now is tiny compared to the importance of the energy problem," Waelbroeck says.
There are still catches to make a fusion device small enough to safely power a hoverboard or hover car without placing the user at risk of radiation poisoning or a giant explosion, Waelbroeck says. During "Back to the Future II" Doc Brown throws garbage into his Mr. Fusion reactor to power the time circuits he added to the car, which is a "ridiculous" way to expect fusion to work, Waelbroeck says.
"You need huge temperatures to get fusion, like 100 million degrees," Waelbroeck says. "You would need a huge reactor to get those temperatures."
Reactors need to be big, so they could not fit on a car or a hoverboard like a small gas engine. What about batteries charged by a fusion reactor? That could fit on a hoverboard. Companies like Tesla Motors are innovating the beginnings of a battery-powered car economy, with electric cars refueled at charging stations. Toyota at CES also announced its hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle, which generates electricity from a chemical reaction using hydrogen and oxygen stored in the battery.