Watch: Star Trek Tractor Beam Levitates Object Using Acoustic Holograms

Tuesday, 27 October 2015 - 2:24PM
Weird Science
Science of Sci-Fi
Physics
Tuesday, 27 October 2015 - 2:24PM
Watch: Star Trek Tractor Beam Levitates Object Using Acoustic Holograms
We've seen many Star Trek-esque technologies come to fruition, including transparent aluminum, molecular scanners, and, of course, cell phones. Now, scientists have taken another step towards making "beam me up, Scotty" a reality, as they have created a tractor beam that can levitate objects using only sound waves.



A tractor beam is any device that can move another object over significant distances without any physical contact. In Star Trek, the tractor beam works by creating a graviton interference pattern, but in recent years, scientists have learned that sound waves are likely the key to "contactless manipulation."

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"Different fields can exert forces on remote objects," lead author Asier Marzo of the Public University of Navarre told The Washington Post. "And each field has its advantages and disadvantages. Magnetic levitation is powerful but restricted in reach, not very controllable and limited on the materials that can be levitated. Optical levitation exerts very weak forces, and quantum levitation even weaker ones. Using sound waves has several advantages: sound waves have the best ratio of input power to exerted force. Sound can travel through air, water and human tissue."
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Last year, scientists at the University of Dundee discovered that acoustic waves could lift small objects. Now, the researchers from the recent study, published today in Nature Communications, seem to have perfected this model, as they use acoustic forcefields created by 64 miniature speakers emitting sound below the object. As seen above, these holographic force fields allow for an unprecedented amount of manipulation and control. 

Of course, sound waves still have their drawbacks: they can't travel through empty space, and they lose their force rapidly in the open air. Most challenging, they depend on the frequency of the sound waves in order to move objects. The lower the frequency, the heavier the object that can be lifted. Unfortunately, this means that extrapolating this technology to life something larger, such as a human, may not be feasible. 

Opening quote
"The lower the frequency, the larger the object," said Marzo. "So for instance if you want to levitate a soccer ball, the necessary sound waves will be dangerous for human hearing."
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But even though we can't beam up Scotty quite yet, there are still many practical applications for this technology. It could lead to major innovations in 3-D displays, for example, as Marzo is planning to develop a 3-D interface composed of millions of levitated particles within the next five years. Even more significantly, it could lead to safer and less invasive medical treatments.

Opening quote
"Sound cannot travel through the void of space, but it can do it through water or human tissue. This potentially enables the manipulation of clots, kidney stones, drug capsules, microsurgical instruments or cells inside our body without any incision," Marzo said.
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