Researchers developing Star Trek-like tractor beam
British and Czech researchers say they are developing a real 'tractor beam,' like the kind from 'Star Trek.'
Published Friday, January 25, 2013 11:57AM EST
A team of British and Czech scientists say they have created a real-life “tractor beam,” like the kind from Star Trek, that uses a beam of light to attract objects – at least at a microscopic level.
Light manipulation techniques have existed since the 1970s, but this is thought to be the first time a light beam has been used to draw objects towards a light source.
In Star Trek, tractor beams are used to move massive objects, such as spaceships.
This kind of beam would more likely be better suited to medical applications, says lead researcher Dr. Tomas Cizmar, from the University of St. Andrews School of Medicine in Scotland.
Cizmar says that while the technique is still in its infancy, what’s exciting about it is that the tractor beam is highly selective in the particles it can attract, so it can pick up particles that have specific properties, such as size or composition.
"Eventually, this could be used to separate white blood cells, for example,” Cizmar told BBC News.
How the technology works is a bit complicated, but it involves a kind of science called “optical fractionation.”
Normally. when objects are hit by a beam of light, light photons use radiation force to move particles inside the object along the direction of the beam. Cizmar's team's technique allows for that force to be reversed, and to use the negative force to draw out certain particles.
As well, the scientists found there were certain conditions in which particles held by the tractor beam force-field actually re-arranged themselves to form a structure, which made the beam even stronger.
Cizmar says there`s much more work to be done, but he`s excited by the potential of this technology.
“Because of the similarities between optical and acoustic particle manipulation, we anticipate that this concept will provide inspiration for exciting future studies in areas outside the field of photonics,” he said in a statement.
The research appears in Nature Photonics.