The Ultrasonic Tractor Beam

You know the tractor beam? It is that beam of light that in every respectable science fiction film (Star Trek, for example) allows the commander of a space vessel to attract or reject objects found in the cosmos.

Gabriel Spalding and his colleagues at the University of Illinois have recently managed to develop a functioning version of this futuristic device, demonstrating its potential on macroscopic objects, that is visible to the naked eye.

Laser pliers and light pushes

Scientists study the possibility of a tractor beam from the 1970s, when the physicist Arthur Ashkin demonstrated that light was not only able to push matter forward, but also to attract very small quantities of it to the parts of the light wave. This phenomenon, known as negative radiation pressure, has enabled the realization of instruments such as optical tweezers, laser-ray devices that allow to immobilize microscopic particles in space.

Ultrasonic Attraction

Spalding, using the same principle, has realized an acoustic tractor beam, which instead of light uses an ultrasound beam. Unlike the optical tweezers, the prototype of American researchers is able to attract objects of one centimeter wide by applying a force of some millinewtons to them. Little, but it is the most powerful tractor beam built up to today and the first capable of acting on objects visible to the naked eye.

Spalding’s radius works very well on slightly spherical bodies, less on triangular and flat ones. And as fans of Star Trek will already have intuition, since the sound does not propagate into space, this device will never be used on a spaceship.

The sci-fi.

So? What good is that? At the moment, little by little. But in the future its applications could be numerous, especially in the medical field. Scientists speculate that individual cells can be manipulated, for example by separating those who are ill from healthy cells in non-invasive interventions or by breaking cysts and stones.

Spalding is not new to this kind of enterprise: a few years ago it realized the first working prototype of sonic screwdriver, very similar to that of Doctor Who, and a holographic vector able to interact with the real objects as happens on the hologram bridge

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