Scientists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland have created a “tractor beam” that could come straight for the set of Star Trek. The research project, which was published in Nature Photonics, successfully developed a tractor beam that uses light to attract and move objects.
Although tractor beams are often thought of as moving large objects like on the science fiction television show Star Trek, at this point in time the real-life version can only be used to move microscopic specimens. In fact, the main goal is to be able to attract tiny cells. Ultimately the researchers would like the device to be used by medical professionals to target single cells throughout the body.
The scientists at the University of St. Andrews are not the first to attempt to create a Star Trek inspired tractor beam. Until now, however, most of the studies involving tractor beams have been theoretical. Researchers in China and Hong Kong released information in 2011 about how they thought tractor beams may be developed using lasers. NASA also conducted study that looked out how tractor beams would help with studying samples in space.
Tomas Cizmar, the lead researcher on the project of the School of Medicine at the University of St. Andrews, is excited about the new technology’s potential. “The practical applications could be very great, very exciting,” he said. “The tractor beam is very selective in the properties of the particles it acts on, so you could pick up specific particles in a mixture.” Cizmar also said one of the goals of the tractor beam in the future will be seeing if can separate white blood cells.
The tractor beam was based on an observation made centuries ago by Johannes Kepler. In 1619, Kepler observed that microscopic objects are forced along the direction of a beam of light by the photons in the light. Kepler made this observation of radiation force when he noted that the tails of comets always point away from the sun.
Cizmar and his research team developed their tractor beam to do the opposite of radiation force, which he admits may seem counterintuitive to some people. “It’s surprising,” he said. “Only when we looked in detail at the process did we see the reversal. It’s quite a narrow field it occurs at.”
Though it works on the microscopic scale, Cizmar insists that at least right now, moving large objects like on Star Trek is not possible. “Unfortunately there is a transfer of energy. On a microscopic scale that is OK, but on a macro scale it would cause huge problems,” he said. “It would result in a massive amount of heating of an object, like a space shuttle. So trapping a space ship is out of the question.”