Scientists Develop Tractor Beam (On A Microscopic Scale)

tractor beamA research team in Scotland and the Czech Republic has developed a tractor beam.

A press release from St. Andrews University reveals that scientists at that university and at the Institute of Scientific Instruments in the Czech Republic have for the first time been able to use light to draw objects closer, although only on a microscopic scale.

It has long been known that photons create a small amount of pressure. Johanes Kepler described the effect way back in the 17th century when he observed that the tails of comets point away from the sun. Experiments using light to push microscopic objects have been conducted for decades, but the current research is the first time light has been used to attract objects.

The team discovered that under a certain set of parameters with a special optical field, the pushing effect turns into a negative force and the object is drawn closer.

The negative force is specific to the object’s size and composition, allowing scientists to pick and choose what objects to attract. This would have applications to medicine and biological research, enabling researchers to sort cells or even parts of a cell. The team’s results have been published in Nature Photonics.

A real science-fiction-style tractor beam would have to be on a vastly greater scale than these experiments, however, so don’t expect it to be used for transportation anytime soon. We’ll see space tourism long before that. The tractor beam experiments are a bit like teleportation experiments that made headlines a year ago. We’re seeing what our grandkids might one day take for granted.

[Image courtesy St Andrews University]