The science & engineering of Back to the Future

DeLoreanDespite a number of internet hoaxes over the last year, today – the 21st October, 2015 – is finally the actual date Marty McFly and Doc travelled forward to in the sequel of Back to the Future (released 1989). Those of us old enough to remember the film may be slightly disappointed that we aren’t living in the promised world of flying cars and hoverboards…but are they far off? Let’s look at how close science and engineering has brought us to three of the most memorable technologies of the film.

1. Hoverboard

Inventor and engineer Catalin Alexander Duru broke the World Record of the longest hoverboard flight this year – travelling almost 300 metres before his batteries ran out!

Drone technology is becoming increasingly commonplace and it seems like only a matter of time before more commercially viable and longer running versions will become available. The main thing holding us back is the development of more efficient (and lighter) batteries.

Just this year a new type of ‘hoverboard’ or ‘rideable’ has become a celebrity must-have. Although they don’t actually hover, they do carry their passenger in a rather futuristic way and use gyroscopes to keep you (mostly) upright. Slight problem – it is illegal to ride them on pavements or roads!

2. Powered clothes

We haven’t quite mastered the self-tying shoelace (although Nike claim to be working on it!) but lots of people are engineering ways to harvest power from your clothes. Whether it’s from wearable solar panels to charge your phone, or using the movement of your body to move magnets within a coil and make electricity for a battery (like the Harvest concept), there’s no doubt that in the very near future we’ll be using our clothes for more than just fashion.

3. Flux capacitor using power from rubbish

As a physicist I can tell you that (sadly) a ‘flux-capacitor’ is not a real thing. The words on their own have meaning in science, but sadly time-travel is still only theoretically possible and no-one has managed it (or they would have come back from the future to tell us about it, right?). The famous DeLorean also needed a huge amount of power to trigger the Flux-capacitor (at exactly 88mph!). In the first film Doc used Plutonium to generate the 1.21 GigaWatts of power needed. When they went back to the 1955 and couldn’t get their hands on plutonium they had to harness a lightning bolt as a substitute. Sadly there are a few problems with using the huge powers in a lightning strike, not least that it is very unpredictable where the bolts will strike (not a problem if you have a time machine I suppose) and it is a sudden short-lived charge, rather than a sustained one. You could get this much power from 484 Wind Turbines, or about 8 billion hamster wheels (amongst other things).

Scientists from LCRI making Biohydrogen

Scientists from LCRI making Biohydrogen

But how about rubbish? Well scientists from the Low Carbon Research Institute (LCRI) at Cardiff University are working on just this. They can create Biohydrogen by adding bacteria to waste. You can hear a great interview about the science of this from the Naked Scientists here.

So it is quite feasible that if we can change the culture of car-buyers and manufacturers we could all be looking a future powered by rubbish.

All of this points towards one thing – to build a future like the one we saw in the film, and for the invention of things we haven’t even dreamt of yet, we need engineers and scientists. Working in partnership with Tomorrow’s Engineers and with our own STEM shows, we’re trying to help by inspiring the scientists and engineers of the future.

Could you be the one who invents a real flux-capacitor?


And don’t forget if this has sparked your appetite for time travel we can all have a little go at going back in time (sort of) as the clocks go back this weekend….!

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Posted in Engineering, Exploring Science, Physics, Technology