Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Monday, June 30, 2014

Beam It Up!

"We were able to show that you could exert sufficient force on an object around one centimetre in size to hold or move it, by directing twin beams of energy from the ultrasound array towards the back of the object."
Christine Demore, Dundee University Institute for Medical Science and Technology
Schematic of the tractor beam experiment

This is not quite the 'tractor beam' of "Star Trek", "Star Wars" and their ilk, capable of capturing and drawing in hostile space craft in an extraterrestrial drama of unknown encounters. This is legitimate science. Of course, science fiction notoriously and frequently in due time, often heralded the marvels that inventive scientists would eventually produce, in a kind of replication of theoretical devices being brought to reality bearing an accurate resemblance to a science fiction writer's imaginative world of wonders.

Lasers have been around for quite a while, now, used for a myriad of purposes over the last fifty years or so. But current technology linked with the advancement of laser technology has enabled scientists to create a number of variations on a theme. One of the more recent developments being the use of an ultrasound beam to influence/pull small, hollow, triangular objects toward the source of the beam.

 A team led by the University of St. Andrews has turned a laser into a tractor beam that wo...

This accomplishment has been the the brainchild brought to fruition of Scottish scientists and physicists at Dundee University in collaboration with researchers at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, and the Illinois Wesleyan University. It is, needless to say, in its infant stage of development. As such it is capable of moving minuscule objects, definitely not spacecraft.

It is capable, however, of drawing forward objects a million times larger than previous tractor beam designs specializing in pulling or sorting particles. It works with a billion times more physical force. And its practical uses will include medical applications, including the treatment of cancer. The technology can enable a capsule to be moved carefully toward the site of a tumour, then strategically released.

Researchers have demonstrated a tractor beam using a Bessel beam (not pictured) is theoret...
Bessel Beam/Tractor Beam

NASA has been working with tractor beams for a few years. Its Office of the Chief Technologist back in 2011 received a fairly large grant for the study and development of three methods of using lasers for the collection of particles; to trap then deposit them where needed for analytical purposes.

So the tractor beam of science fiction has now become a tractor beam of scientific usefulness, a usefulness that will grow as the technology advances. For the time being, however, while useful, the tractor beams are capable of manipulating small particles only.

As for the future? Who knows.

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