Every day it seems like Star Trek is looking more like actual science than science fiction. We’re working on holographic doctors, transporter beams, and tricorders–and intelligent sliding doors are now a reality.
But what about the real-world status of the under-appreciated workhorse of the Trek world, the humble tractor beam? Scientists had already been working on models that can push tiny objects small distances using light, but a new version of a tractor beam uses sound instead.
In a new paper published today in Nature Communications, researchers figured out a way to manipulate a tiny physical object using what they call, acoustic holograms.
The researchers used a grid of tiny loudspeakers to levitate, rotate, and otherwise manipulate a tiny ball in mid air. They did this by programming the speakers to send out high intensity sounds that create a kind of force field around the object. In the GIF above, you see one of their tractor beam models, which can move a small object around the grid as though it were held by human fingers, (aka, the ‘hologram’ the researchers were talking about). Other variations of their model involve creating a twister-like cone of sound that can suck an object up into the heart of the beam.
Previous research created an acoustic tractor beam that could work underwater, but this new research only needs air. The researchers think this delicate manipulation might one day be used to create sound-based assembly lines or help manipulate drugs in a patient’s body.