02Aug2012

 Tractor Beams Of Light – No Longer Pure Science Fiction!

Science fiction meets real science! “Tractor beams” – fascinating invisible beams that can push and pull objects, leave science fiction domain.It may become reality very soon.

The concept of “tractor beam” used in science fiction films and books to haul spaceships and capture floating capsules gains scientific attention. It’s not just science fiction writers who are interested in this technological phenomenon. Haifeng Wang and co-workers at the A*STAR Data Storage Institute developing future generation technologies, have now demonstrated how a tractor beam can in fact be realized on a small scale.

These rays of light are often shown pulling objects towards an observer, seemingly violating the laws of physics, and of course, such beams have yet to be realised in the real world. Haifeng Wang at the A*STAR Data Storage Institute and co-workers have now demonstrated how a tractor beam can in fact be realized on a small scale.

“Our work demonstrates a tractor beam based only on a single laser to pull or push an object of interest toward the light source,” says Wang. Based on pioneering work by Albert Einstein and Max Planck more than a hundred years ago, it is known that light carries momentum that pushes objects away.

In addition, the intensity that varies across a laser beam can be used to push objects sideways, and for example can be used to move cells in biotechnology applications.


Tractor beams like the one on the USS Enterprise are a staple of science fiction. Picture: Courtesy of CBS

Pulling an object towards an observer, however, has so far proven to be elusive. In 2011, researchers theoretically demonstrated a mechanism where light movement can be controlled using two opposing light beams — though technically, this differs from the idea behind a tractor beam.

Wang and co-workers have now studied the properties of lasers with a particular type of distribution of light intensity across the beam, or so-called Bessel beams. Usually, if a laser beam hits a small particle in its path, the light is scattered backwards, which in turn pushes the particle forward.

What Wang and co-workers have now shown theoretically for Bessel beams is that for particles that are sufficiently small, the light scatters off the particle in a forward direction, meaning that the particle itself is pulled backwards towards the observer.


Artist's conception of a future space probe using a tractor beam to gather samples of materialIn other words, the behaviour of the particle is the direct opposite of the usual scenario. The size of the tractor beam force depends on parameters such as the electrical and magnetic properties of the particles.

Although the forces are not very large, such tractor beams do have real applications, says Wang. “These beams are not very likely to pull a human or a car, as this would require a huge laser intensity that may damage the object,” says Wang. “However, they could manipulate biological cells because the force needed for these doesn’t have to be large.”

Such applications are the driving force for future experimental demonstrations of such pulling effects.

The technology could, for example, be used to gauge the tensile strength of cells, which would be useful to investigate whether cells have been infected. “For instance, the malaria-infected blood cell is more rigid, and this technology would be an easy-to-use tool to measure this,” adds Wang.

 

Video-The Audacity to Dream

Making its debut at the TEDxISU (International Space University) event on July 6, the video above is an inspirational call-to-arms for anyone who’s ever looked to the stars and dreamed of a day when the sky was, in fact, not the limit. From Sputnik to Space Station, from Vostok to Virgin Galactic, the video reminds us of the spirit of adventure that unites us, regardless of time or place or politics. Dreaming, after all, is universal. Source: Universe Today

 

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