Science

It's pulling us in! Researchers make tractor beams a reality

The tractor beam suspends a small particle over an optics table (Image: Australian National University)
The tractor beam suspends a small particle over an optics table (Image: Australian National University)
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Members of the tractor beam team: Yana Izdebskaya, Anton Desyatnikov, Vladlen Shvedov, Andrei Rode, Yuri Kivshar and Wieslaw Krolikowski (Image: Tim Wetherell)
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Members of the tractor beam team: Yana Izdebskaya, Anton Desyatnikov, Vladlen Shvedov, Andrei Rode, Yuri Kivshar and Wieslaw Krolikowski (Image: Tim Wetherell)
The tractor beam suspends a small particle over an optics table (Image: Australian National University)
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The tractor beam suspends a small particle over an optics table (Image: Australian National University)

In a move that is sure to warm the hearts of those in the upper echelon of the Galactic Empire, researchers have taken tractor beams from the realm of science fiction to the realm of science fact. The researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) have developed a laser beam that can move very small particles up to distances of a meter and a half (4.9 feet) using only the power of light. Unfortunately this means it won’t be able to reel in anything the size of the Millennium Falcon, and the fact it won’t work in the vacuum of space probably won’t help matters either, but it’s a remarkable breakthrough nonetheless.

Professor Andrei Rode’s team from the Laser Physics Centre at ANU used a hollow laser beam to trap light-absorbing glass particles in a ‘dark core’. The particles are then moved up and down the beam of light, which acts like an optical ‘pipeline’.

“When the small particles are trapped in this dark core very interesting things start to happen,” said Dr Rode. “As gravity, air currents and random motions of air molecules around the particle push it out of centre, one side becomes illuminated by the laser whilst the other lies in darkness. This creates a tiny thrust, known as a photophoretic force that effectively pushes the particle back into the darkened core. In addition to the trapping effect, a portion of the energy from the beam and the resulting force pushes the particle along the hollow laser pipeline.”

Professor Rode said there are a number of practical applications for this technology, including directing and clustering nano-particles in air, the micro-manipulation of objects, sampling of atmospheric aerosols, and low contamination, non-touch handling of sampling materials.

“On top of this, the laser beam could be used for the transport of dangerous substances and microbes, in small amounts,” he said.

A full article about the team’s tractor beam will feature in the Spring edition of ANU’s science magazine, ScienceWise, which will be available online from September 23, 2010.

Via PhysOrg.

5 comments
Bill Bennett
very bitchin' what five, ten years to a viable devise? Scotty beam me up, we will stop by on our way back to earth, oh wait this is earth, with silly people who do religion, maybe we should forget going back to earth and the silly flatlanders. Bestust, Bill
Michael Langston
Very COOOL! This is just the tip of the iceburg with what this technology can do. I wonder what the military already has though?
Neil
The tractor beam concept is more closely associated with Star Trek, but that\'s ok. This is an intruiging first step. Although the fictional starship relies on more powerful engines than we currently have, they also need things like inertial dampeners and navigational deflectors to make the whole thing viable. Oh, and our clueless friend \'bill\': This has nothing to do with transporters. Now who is silly?
Mr Stiffy
Everyone goes \"OH Tractor Beam, Tractor Beam, Tractor Beam\". It\'s not a tractor beam, it\'s a pusher / presser / pressor beam.....
Ryein Goddard
I think the title is kind of deceiving. Doesn\'t give the right idea to the reader.