Physicists build reversible laser tractor beam

Credit: Stuart Hay, ANU

Dr. Vladlen Shvedov (L) and Dr. Cyril Hnatovsky adjust the
hollow laser beam in their lab at the Australian National University.
Star Trek and Star Wars technology is getting closer.  

Okay, so this tractor beam moves particles, but, one of these days it will be powerful enough to pull a shrimp off the barby from the kitchen or a cold Foster  Ale from the fridge to my chair while I'm happily watching The Simpsons.  And just how cool is that?  After that, who knows.  Maybe it will repel bill collectors and pull in. . . well, it's dream.

In reality, this may seem trivial, but the ability to attract or repel at this level is a first step to achieving something amazing.  Kudos to the researchers who achieved this.

Here's the story:

Laser physicists have built a tractor beam that can repel and attract objects, using a hollow laser beam that is bright around the edges and dark in its center.

It is the first long-distance optical tractor beam and moved particles one fifth of a millimeter in diameter a distance of up to 20 centimeters, around 100 times further than previous experiments.
"Demonstration of a large scale laser beam like this is a kind of holy grail for laser physicists," said Professor Wieslaw Krolikowski, from the Research School of Physics and Engineering at The Australian National University.

The new technique is versatile because it requires only a single laser beam. It could be used, for example, in controlling atmospheric pollution or for the retrieval of tiny, delicate or dangerous particles for sampling.

The researchers can also imagine the effect being scaled up.  "Because lasers retain their beam quality for such long distances, this could work over meters. Our lab just was not big enough to show it," said co-author Dr Vladlen Shvedov, a driving force behind the ANU project, along with Dr Cyril Hnatovsky.

Unlike previous techniques, which used photon momentum to impart motion, the ANU tractor beam relies on the energy of the laser heating up the particles and the air around them. The ANU team demonstrated the effect on gold-coated hollow glass particles.

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The particles are trapped in the dark center of the beam. Energy from the laser hits the particle and travels across its surface, where it is absorbed creating hot spots on the surface. Air particles colliding with the hotspots heat up and shoot away from the surface, which causes the particle to recoil, in the opposite direction.

To manipulate the particle, the team move the position of the hot spot by carefully controlling the polarization of the laser beam.

"We have devised a technique that can create unusual states of polarization in the doughnut shaped laser beam, such as star-shaped (axial) or ring polarized (azimuthal)," Dr Hnatovsky said.

"We can move smoothly from one polarization to another and thereby stop the particle or reverse its direction at will."

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Story Source:  Materials provided by Australian National University. Vladlen Shvedov, Arthur R. Davoyan, Cyril Hnatovsky, Nader Engheta, Wieslaw Krolikowski. A long-range polarization-controlled optical tractor beam. Nature Photonics, 2014


  1. Arthur C. Clark said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", and, "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."


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