Borg Cube throwing a tractor beam on the Enterprise.. not too far from becoming a reality... the beam that is. (via CBS)
Thanks to scientists at The Australian National University, we could all have tractor beam pens to move the TV remote closer. Tractor beams have been in the realm of science fiction for some time, whether it's the Star Trek Enterprise, or the Star Wars Death Star, all futuristic societies have figured out how to move objects using laser technology.
Naturally, super nerds everywhere (aka scientists) have been trying to invent a real tractor beam with intermittent success. Previous attempts at creating a tractor beam have used light propulsion to move microscopic particles, microscopic distances. Hence, they've been pretty far off the mark.
The scientists at The Australian National University (ANU) have taken a novel approach by developing a hollow laser beam, and using the laser to heat the metal coating of the object to control and propel the direction of movement. Their design allowed them to move a 0.2 mm particle almost 20 cm. This is about 100 times further than previous technologies have been able to move even smaller particles using laser beams.
Maybe one day we can even beam Scotty up! Today, however, we'll have to settle for decent sized particles. The particles ANU scientists have been using are glass spheres that are coated with gold. The gold plating allows the laser to more easily polarize and heat up the outside of the sphere which causes it to move. The laser developed by ANU scientists has a laser free center, thus the term 'hollow beam'. The center of the beam is hollow in order to create 'hotspots; on the surface of the spheres which cause the particle to move as a result of reactions it has with the air.
The reactions of the air occur when air particles meet the super hot spots on the sphere's surface and bounce in the opposite direction. As the air particles collide and move in the opposite direction, it causes the sphere also to move in the opposite direction of the particle as a result of the collision. It's basic physics: equal and opposite reactions.
The team can also control the movement of the particle seamlessly using a unique method of polarization. The hollow laser beam creates unique polarizations on specific points on the sphere that control its movement, in any direction. The laser has been designed to do this by creating polarizations in particular shapes including doughnuts, stars, and rings. These shapes allow the particle to move forward, backward, and more. The laser can be controlled to move from these various polarizations states easily.
The scientists are confident that this beam can be put into practice in the near future by controlling things like pollution and expelling dangerous particles from the air. Perhaps we will see large tractor beams moving junk out of our air and into the exosphere in the near future. They also want to use their tractor beam to get samples of dangerous or hazardous particles that need special care.
Finally, the team says that their design can be scaled up easily to move even bigger particles, if one has the space for a giant laser beam in their backyard.
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