Advanced 3D printing technology is getting close to resembling replicators from Star Trek and iPads look a whole lot like the gadgets Geordi was always carrying around. Now, physicists have taken another step towards making Starfleet technology a reality by inventing a working tractor beam, which is essentially a laser that can move things. Sure, currently it can only move itty bitty molecules, but the fact that it works at all opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities.
NYU professors David Ruffner and David Grier have developed a way to harness Bessel beams in order to pull particles towards a laser source. The result is the beginnings of a very tiny tractor beam capable of moving silica spheres suspended in water.
According to Geekosystem:
Rather than a single beam, Bessel beams are transmitted as concentric circles that converge around the point they’re directed at. This gives the beams a unique quality. If you place a small object between the source of the beam and its destination, the concentric rings of the Bessel beam can reform around the object. That makes it possible for Bessel beams to pull or push objects — a quality of the beams that had been hypothetical until now.
Mr. Ruffner and Mr. Grier discovered that by overlapping two Bessel beams and slightly distorting them through a lens they could create enough energy to move the molecules.
Phys Org, which originally posted the discovery, argues that this type of tractor beam would need such a hulking amount of energy in order to allow it to move large objects that it “likely would destroy those objects in the process.” But, they add, “it does suggest that such a device might be possible using another less energy intensive source.”
In Star Trek, tractor beams are used to manipulate cargo, guide ships into the landing dock and damage enemy ships. In real life, we just hope we’ll be able to shine a laser on the TV remote across the room and have it magically float over to us. Dream big.