Physics

Acoustic tractor beam creates an ultrasound tornado for large-scale levitation

Acoustic tractor beam creates ...
A new "acoustic tractor beam" design has been able to levitate a polystyrene ball measuring 2 cm (0.9 in) wide, making it the largest object levitated to date
A new "acoustic tractor beam" design has been able to levitate a polystyrene ball measuring 2 cm (0.9 in) wide, making it the largest object levitated to date
View 3 Images
The acoustic tractor beam used ultrasound waves with a pitch of 40 kHz, which could make it safe for eventual human levitation
1/3
The acoustic tractor beam used ultrasound waves with a pitch of 40 kHz, which could make it safe for eventual human levitation
A new "acoustic tractor beam" design has been able to levitate a polystyrene ball measuring 2 cm (0.9 in) wide, making it the largest object levitated to date
2/3
A new "acoustic tractor beam" design has been able to levitate a polystyrene ball measuring 2 cm (0.9 in) wide, making it the largest object levitated to date
The acoustic tractor beam keeps objects trapped in midair with sound waves that quickly  alternate in direction, preventing an object from spinning out of control
3/3
The acoustic tractor beam keeps objects trapped in midair with sound waves that quickly  alternate in direction, preventing an object from spinning out of control

Levitation is no longer just the realm of magicians, with engineers dabbling in ways to suspend objects in midair using magnets, heat flow or sound waves. Unfortunately, it usually only works with particles or tiny objects, but scientists from the University of Bristol have developed a new "acoustic tractor beam" that can trap larger objects, possibly paving the way for contactless production lines or even human levitation.

In previous acoustic tractor beam designs, two ultrasonic speakers face each other across an open space. The ultrasound waves emitted by both speakers meet in the middle, and the perfectly aligned pressure from both directions can keep particles and other very light objects hovering in that meeting point (called the standing wave).

But there are a couple of problems with this technique that have limited the size of objects that can be levitated. If an object isn't positioned perfectly, the difference in pressure can cause it to whizz off out of the tractor beam, and if an object is larger than the wavelength of the sound waves, it will spin faster and faster until it, again, flies off.

The Bristol device was designed to counteract those issues by arranging a set of speakers in a bowl shape. These speakers produce sound in a rapidly spinning pattern, creating a kind of "sound tornado" with louder waves spinning around a silent core. That core acts like a 3D version of the standing waves produced in earlier acoustic tractor beams, keeping objects levitating motionless in the eye of the storm.

The acoustic tractor beam keeps objects trapped in midair with sound waves that quickly  alternate in direction, preventing an object from spinning out of control
The acoustic tractor beam keeps objects trapped in midair with sound waves that quickly  alternate in direction, preventing an object from spinning out of control

To keep the tornado from transferring its spin to the object, the speakers quickly twist their direction back and forth, creating alternating vortices of sound that work to stabilize the tractor beam. After enlarging the silent core, the researchers successfully levitated a polysytrene ball measuring 2 cm (0.8 in), which is twice the wavelength of the 40 kHz ultrasonic waves used in the test. That makes it the largest object ever held in a tractor beam, and the researchers say it bodes well for the future of large-scale levitation.

"Acoustic researchers had been frustrated by the size limit for years, so it's satisfying to find a way to overcome it," says Asier Marzo, lead author of the study. "I think it opens the door to many new applications."

Previously, human levitation was believed to be impossible because larger objects require lower-pitch sound, which are audible and can be dangerous to us. But this study worked with a frequency of 40 kHz, which is higher than humans can detect and into the range of a bat's hearing. That makes it safe for the magician's lovely levitating assistant and everyone in the audience.

"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," says Bruce Drinkwater, supervisor on the project. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."

The study was published in the journal Physical Review Letters and the researchers demonstrate their acoustic tractor beam in the video below.

Source: University of Bristol

Acoustic Virtual Vortices with Tunable Orbital Angular Momentum for Trapping of Mie Particles

3 comments
Kpar
Extremely clever work- that might make for a very nice Zero-G bed (ala Larry Niven)! That said, there are some who say that continued long-term exposure to ultrasound may have deleterious effects on biological systems. Time will tell.
Mik-Fielding
The comment about 40 kHz being safe for humans, or any living thing for that matter is very naive. Many years ago I and some collegues conducted some experiments with a high power ultrasonic transducer that was built for use in testing aircraft mainframes. For these experiments it was mainly used with suitable waveguides for in air experiments (instead of being attached to the metal airframe). These devices could output 100W or more at frequencies ranging from around 30kHz to around 120kHz. Apart from interesting things like reducing cement between bricks into sand, cleaning rocks and rusty metal some very disconcerting properties were discovered. One of these was how it created internal heating of body tissue in a similar manner to high power radio waves and indeed, not unlike a microwave oven! This property has, I understand, been utilised in more recent years as a form of non-lethal crowd dispersal device. Also the ability to not only cause some spectacular headaches, but even loss of consciousness, is also a matter of great concern and not something to idly dismiss. The aircraft company had strict safety guidelines about the use of these devices and they were not allowed to be used unless they were attached to a panel of metal at least, i.e. never to be used in open air ...
IvanWashington
I was under the impression that sustained high-intensity ultrasound could cause hearing loss.