Science Fiction Problems: Hovercrafts (Part II)

Hello (again) all! This is the second part of my two-day spree on Hovercrafts (click here for yesterday’s post). In part one I talked about what our current-generation hovercrafts look like, as well as why people don’t tend to use them in science fiction, opting for Star Wars inspired landspeeder-esque hovercrafts instead.

I actually agree with this change, although I do wish people would work a little harder to make it feel more plausible. Traditional, real-world hovercrafts don’t look how we’d like, and  the limitations make them very difficult to implement in a cool way. What is a sci-fi writer to do? Must he contrive some practically magical transport with not a shred of scientific plausibility, just for the sake of a neat flying car for his characters to wiz around in? Fear not! I have a solution I think everyone will be happy with- and it involves quantum mechanics! (yay!)

Quantum Levitation and/or Trapping

The lines represent the magnetic field wrapping itself and punching through the material, whereas it would normally just pass through it

See? Don’t you just feel smarter already? To reiterate, the “levitation” or trapping, as the demonstrator corrects, is a quirk of Quantum mechanics in which small “flux tubes” of magnetic force pierce through an object’s thin superconducting material (which is just a material that perfectly conducts electricity).The flux tubes are what “lock” the object in space, making it “levitate”. The effect is kind of like if you took a piece of styrafoam and stuck some toothpicks in it, forming legs that hold it up. There’s a diagram for you on the left if you need a visual aide.

So why is this useful? Well, it’s creating a levitation effect that pretty well matches the description for the sci-fi hovercraft we’re trying to build, and even though no one’s yet shown that this can be done on a large enough scale for a vehicle, or that it can be properly controlled (as in altitude, movement, etc.), there’s no reason we can’t speculate wildly! That’s what we do in science fiction, after all!

Potential Uses

Since the principle relies on relatively week magnetic fields, if someone could figure out

The automated hovercraft freeway in Minority Report could easily be utilizing Quantum Levitation

how to strengthen the effect, it could be used with the Earth’s natural magnetic field. That would mean that you could create a vehicle that uses Quantum Levitation to hang in the air, spin, and dart around frictionlessly. While I think it would probably be difficult or restrictively expensive to make one very large, if it was designed to stay on a magnetic track like the one in the video, you could have levitating trains, or with a wider track, freeways for levitating cars (kind of like the ones on Minority Report). In fact, you might decide to limit hovercrafts only to these magnetic tracks- your call.

If you decided to use this method of hovering in your story, here are someways you could hint that you’re using Quantum Levitation:

  • Need for Sub-Zero Cooling of “Levitation Plates”– in order for the material to become superconductive, and thus generate the effect, it needs to be really cold. You could show that in your story by mentioning the mist and dry ice forming on its surface, and the care people need to take so as not to touch the metal directly (although there’s no reason the plates couldn’t be covered by a protective shield)
  • Frictionless Movement, but Limited– These vehicles, no matter how you envision them, would be hovercrafts and not planes. They could move in any direction and tilt their orientation however they liked, but all fast movements would need to be along the plane of the magnetic field. Disruptions in the field would become obstacles, forcing the craft to either avoid them completely or “jump” over them, like a car driving over a speed-bump. Movement would look kind of like a helicopter; because of the way it’s staying aloft, it cant tilt up and travel in a straight line, it would need to gain elevation, and then travel to the destination on a flat altitude. It would also have a limit as to how high it could fly. I don’t think it would drop out of the sky or anything, but at some point it just wouldn’t be able to go up any further without generating its own lift like a normal air vehicle.

There’s probably other ways that I’m not thinking of, but those would be a few ways of describing it that could lead readers back to the idea of quantum levitation if they were so inclined to figure it out. By doing this, you’ve not only gotten around the annoyances of typical hovercrafts, but done so in a scientifically plausible way that is based on science we currently have, which can add a lot to the believeability of your story if you present it  carefully.

Well, I think that’s quite enough of hovercrafts this week! Brian will be back next week, and we’ll be starting our second annual Turkey Week extravaganza! Be prepared for snarky rants that poke holes in the year’s worst Turkeys of literature and media in celebration of our nation’s Thanksgiving Day!

Until then, has anyone come accross hovercrafts in literature that stuck out at you? I remember the hovercrafts of Brave New World particularly because it was the earliest I had seen them in fiction, and I was intrigued by the way the author described them (very similarly to my idea above, actually). What about you? Let me know in the comments below!


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