Perhaps, you recall when the Death Star reeled in the Millennium Falcon in the original Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope or in many episodes of Star Trek. The invisible force aka a tractor beam has always been known as phenomenon rooted in science fiction. However, a team of scientists have changed that and created real-life tractor beams that actually mimic the force seen in the movies. And while the technology has a long way to go to come anything close to the awe-inspiring laser beams, researchers have what they believe are the keys to unlocking the real thing on a larger scale — someday.
Dr Vladlen Shvedov and Dr Cyril Hnatovsky of Australian National University, are the creators of a laser-based tractor beam that can move tiny particles over short distances. The men, both skilled in the field of laser physics, constructed the apparatus that also has the ability to repel objects using a hollow beam, that is brilliant on the outer edges and has a cool, dark center.
Reportedly, the miniature tractor beam is the first technology of its kind that can move particles measuring no more than a one-fifth of a millimeter in diameter over a distance of up to 20 centimeters. The co-authors of the study, published in the Oct. 19 in the journal Nature Photonics, said the hollow laser moved objects 100 times further than previous prototypes. Shvedov believes their tractor beam has the capability of far-exceeding laboratory measurements in a controlled environment.
“Because lasers retain their beam quality for such long distances, this could work over meters. Our lab just was not big enough to show it.”
The tractor beam created by the Aussie team is unique on another front: it uses a different technique altogether. Instead of relying on momentum-transfer as retractor beams do, the new technique uses heat energy. Live Science explains.
“The new technique takes advantage of heat energy. During the experiment, heat from the laser warmed up the air around the tiny spheres. The spheres absorbed some of the heat until their surfaces were sprinkled with hotspots. Air particles that run into the hotspots ricochet off and cause the spheres to repel in the opposite direction. The trick is to make the back of the sphere hotter than the front of the sphere, said study researcher Cyril Hnatovsky, a research fellow at the Australian National University.”
Although a real tractor beam device exists of sorts, the technology is a long way off from being able to move even larger objects and particles over greater distances. Some practical applications can assist in the reduction of air pollution by removing toxic particles from the environment.