Tractor beams, those fascinating beams of light familiar to many of us thanks to science fiction movies and scenes showing aliens abducting earthlings, have captured our imagination for a long time. Now, a team of scientists from Scotland’s University of St Andrews and the Institute of Scientific Instruments in the Czech Republic have managed to replicate the actions of a real world tractor beam, at least sort of.
The practical version of the tractor beam developed by the researchers works on a much much smaller scale, as in microscopic small. This results in the tractor beams being put to completely different, more practical use, than that of capturing spaceships or kidnapping humans.
The researchers found out that when microscopic particles were attracted using negative light force it had a curious effect on them. The effect varied depending on their particular characteristics such as mass and composition and they also tended to rearrange themselves differently after removal of the force.
The relatively immediate use of this discovery would be in the field of bio-medicine, where medical grade tractor beams could be used to rearrange macromolecules, organelles and cells.
Dr Tomas Cizmar from University of St Andrews said, “The practical applications could be very great, very exciting. 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.” “Eventually this could be used to separate white blood cells, for example.”
All that sounds really great and we should really excited about this new development, but what about Star Trek size tractor beams?
“Unfortunately there is a transfer of energy. On a microscopic scale that is OK, but on a macro scale it would cause huge problems.” Dr Cizmar said. “It would result in a massive amount of heating of an object, like a space shuttle. So trapping a spaceship is out of the question,” He added.
Those of you who were left disappointed after the US government turned down the petition to build a Death Star might feel slightly better after reading this.