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Beam Me Up: ‘Tractor Beams’ of Light Pull Small Objects Towards Them

Monday, May 28, 2012 11:26
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ScienceDaily (May 24, 2012) — ‘Tractor beams’ of light that pull objects towards them are no longer science fiction. Haifeng Wang at the A*STAR Data Storage Institute and co-workers have now demonstrated how a tractor beam can in fact be realized on a small scale.
Based on pioneering work by Albert Einstein and Max Planck more than a hundred years ago, it is known that light carries momentum that pushes objects away. In addition, the intensity that varies across a laser beam can be used to push objects sideways, and for example can be used to move cells in biotechnology applications. Pulling an object towards an observer, however, has so far proven to be elusive. In 2011, researchers theoretically demonstrated a mechanism where light movement can be controlled using two opposing light beams — though technically, this differs from the idea behind a tractor beam.
Wang and co-workers have now studied the properties of lasers with a particular type of distribution of light intensity across the beam, or so-called Bessel beams. Usually, if a laser beam hits a small particle in its path, the light is scattered backwards, which in turn pushes the particle forward. What Wang and co-workers have now shown theoretically for Bessel beams is that for particles that are sufficiently small, the light scatters off the particle in a forward direction, meaning that the particle itself is pulled backwards towards the observer. In other words, the behaviour of the particle is the direct opposite of the usual scenario. The size of the tractor beam force depends on parameters such as the electrical and magnetic properties of the particles.

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