Acoustic tractor beams use the power of sound to hold particles in mid-air, and unlike magnetic levitation, they can grab most solids, liquids or even small insects and food. For the first time University of Bristol engineers have shown that it is possible to stably trap objects larger than the wavelength of sound in an acoustic tractor beam. This discovery opens the door to the manipulation of drug capsules or micro-surgical implements within the human body.
Container-less transportation of delicate larger samples is now also a possibility and who knows, this could be a step towards levitating humans.
Researchers previously thought that acoustic tractor beams were fundamentally limited to levitating small objects as all the previous attempts to trap particles larger than the wavelength had been unstable, with objects spinning uncontrollably. This is because rotating sound field transfers some of its spinning motion to the objects causing them to orbit faster and faster until they are ejected.
The new approach, published in Physical Review Letters, uses rapidly fluctuating acoustic vortices, which are similar to tornadoes of sound, made of a twister-like structure with loud sound surrounding a silent core.
The Bristol researchers discovered that the rate of rotation can be finely controlled by rapidly changing the twisting direction of the vortices, this stabilises the tractor beam. They were then able to increase the size of the silent core allowing it to hold larger objects.
Working with ultrasonic waves at a pitch of 40kHz, a similar pitch to that which only bats can hear, the researchers held a two-centimetre polystyrene sphere in the tractor beam. This sphere measures over two acoustic wavelengths in size and is the largest yet trapped in a tractor beam. The research suggests that, in the future much larger objects could be levitated in this way.
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Image credit: University of Bristol.