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Yep, Scientists Just Beat a Record for a Working Tractor Beam

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“Demonstration of a large scale laser beam."

The age of the "Star Trek" tractor beam is upon us but on a much, much smaller scale.

Australian scientists announced earlier this week that they created a laser tractor beam that was able to move a particle as high as 20 centimeters. This optical tractor beam by researchers at Australian National University used a hollow laser to attract and repel objects, the university's news release stated.

The university also said their technology beats previous height records for tractor beams.

“Demonstration of a large scale laser beam like this is a kind of holy grail for laser physicists,” physics professor Wieslaw Krolikowski said in a statement.

While raising up a particle that's less than a millimeter in diameter just under 8 inches might not seem like that much of an accomplishment, the researchers think it could perform on an even grander scale.

Dr Vladlen Shvedov (L) and Dr Cyril Hnatovsky adjusting the hollow laser beam in their lab at RSPE. Image Stuart Hay, ANU) Dr. Vladlen Shvedov (left) nd Dr. Cyril Hnatovsky (right) show how the hollow laser beam can be used to control a small particle in the air. (Image source: Stuart Hay, ANU)

“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,” Dr. Vladlen Shvedov, who was also involved with the research, said.

The tractor beam works by heating up the air around the particle and the particle itself. The particle then gets trapped in the center of the hollow beam. Here's more about the movement:

Energy from the laser hits the particle and travels across its surface, where it is absorbed creating hotspots 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 hotspot by carefully controlling the polarisation of the laser beam.

The researchers believe such a tractor beam could be used to control pollution in the air, for example.

This isn't the only type of tractor beam the Australian team has created though. Earlier this year, they showed off a tractor beam that could control objects floating on water:

More details on this research was published in the journal Nature Photonics.

A few years ago, NASA invested $100,000 into tractor beam research.

(H/T: Science Alert)

Front page image via Shutterstock.

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