Sci-fi sound wave device makes Star Trek style tractor beams out of powerful mini-tornadoes that can manipulate large objects
02/14/2018 // David Williams // Views

It seems like every day you see, hear, or read about something that's being created or invented concerning all sorts of popular science fiction technology, but a fully-working tractor beam was never among them -- until now. According to a team of engineers from the University of Bristol, they have successfully managed to develop the world's most powerful tractor beam, and it's capable of moving objects around using nothing but the power of sound.

That's right, with the power of their newly-invented acoustic tractor beam, the team of engineers was able to show that it's possible to hold particles in mid-air. So far, they have only tested it on a two-centimeter piece of polystyrene sphere, but it's a good start, considering the technology could have lots of different applications -- out on land or even in other locations.

According to the researchers, they have been working on the development of their acoustic tractor beam technology for a few decades now. And a major obstacle has stood in their way: rotating sound fields typically transfer some of their spinning motion to the objects that they are supposed to hold, making them orbit faster and faster up to the point that they become unstable.

Now, the team has managed to find an alternative to conventional methods. The new way, in which the researchers created a device that can create "mini tornadoes" from sound waves alone, is said to use a spinning field to keep objects steady instead. The researchers are now hoping to scale up the use of their technology in order to manipulate much larger objects that they initial tests would allow them to.


According to Dr. Asier Marzo, the lead author of the study from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol, their breakthrough could provide the much-needed push for a fully-developed and fully-working version that can truly be used for some real-world applications. "Acoustic researchers had been frustrated by the size limit for years, so it's satisfying to find a way to overcome it," he explained. "I think it opens the door to many new applications."

According to a report, the breakthrough of the researchers comes from the discovery that the rate of rotation can be finely controlled, and that is by rapidly changing the direction of the vortices, which ends up stabilizing the tractor beam. This then led to an increase in the size of the so-called "silent core" that is actually where floating objects lie on the tractor beam itself. And as its size increased, so too did its capacity to hold solid objects.

In the end, the researchers settled on using ultrasonic waves that were set at a pitch of 40 kHz, which is the same pitch as sounds that only bats can hear, and then they used it to hold the two-centimeter polystyrene sphere mentioned at the beginning of this article. The researchers note that the sphere measures two acoustic wavelengths in size and is so far the largest object yet trapped in a working tractor beam.

Dr. Bruce Drinkwaterm, a professor of Ultrasonics from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol, said that there is potential to use the new kind of tractor beam for other things in the future. "Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," he explained. "I'm just particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them.

The world may be some ways from that, but it's certainly not outside the realm of possibility.

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