Image: Tractor Beam
Australian National University
Physicists at the Australian National University have announced that they've built a device capable of transporting small glass particles — one hundred times the size of a bacterium — one and a half meters across a laboratory desk without touching them.
updated 9/10/2010 12:43:22 PM ET 2010-09-10T16:43:22

This week brought the 44th anniversary of the classic science fiction TV series "Star Trek." On Sept. 8, 1966, the first episode of Captain Kirk's adventures aired, and over the decades some of the imagined future technologies in the "Star Trek" universe have actually come to life in some way, shape or form.

Now, it appears we may be a step closer to seeing another "Star Trek" tech come to life: the tractor beam. But don't expect to capture a Romulan Warbird with it any time soon.

Building a tractor beam in the lab may sound a little far-fetched, but physicists at the Australian National University have announced that they've built a device capable of transporting small glass particles — a hundred times the size of a bacterium — one and a half meters across a laboratory desk without touching them. This is a huge advance considering existing "optical tweezers" can only push particles the size of a bacterium few millimeters in liquid.

How is this achieved?

In the "Star Trek" universe, spaceships use a "graviton beam emitter" to create a graviton interference pattern that can be manipulated to grab onto other sub-warp-speed space objects (I'll get on to warp speed later.) Alas, gravitons are hypothetical quantum particles in our universe, and the Australian researchers certainly can't use them in their lab experiment.

Instead, they've built a "hollow laser" that can trap small objects inside and manipulate them.

This 21st-century technology creates a very thin tube of laser light with a dark core. When the glass particles are placed inside the cool core, they are kept there by the laser-heated air. Should the particles drift in any direction, they are pushed back to the center by the hot cushioning air molecules.

Now the glass particles are trapped in this hollow laser prison, they can be manipulated tractor beam-style.

Image: Star Trek Tractor Beam
Paramount Pictures
The type of heavy-duty tractor beam seen in "Star Trek" is still in the realm of science fiction.

A small amount of laser light leaks into the cool core of the tube, exerting a small amount of pressure on the particles. The result? The particles move along the beam.

By placing another laser at the other end of the tube and adjusting the brightness of both lasers, the particles can be controlled.

Although the team were limited by the size of the optical table in the lab (1.5 meters long), Andrei Rhode, one of the researchers involved in the study, thinks particles can be transported a distance of up to 10 meters.

But you may notice a problem with this technique if you wanted to install the laser-tractor beam on the USS Enterprise. This system needs to be operated in an atmosphere, not in a vacuum — the glass particles are kept in place by laser-heated air molecules after all.

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Still, there are a huge variety of applications this burgeoning tractor beam has on Earth. For one, this could be used to transport dangerous microorganisms "hands free" in biomedical facilities; a step-up from the optical tweezers already in use. It could also be used in the construction of sensitive microscopic machines.

So, will the "Star Trek" tractor beam ever be possible? Unless gravitons are discovered, it would seem this technology is unlikely at best.

However, that's been said about another "Star Trek" favorite: the warp drive. Assuming the existence of dark energy, tiny extra dimensions and a method to generate a shedload of energy, advanced propulsion expert Richard Obousy thinks zipping around the cosmos at warp speed could have potential.

"It's apparent to me that a lot of people seem to want to prove why a technology is not possible, rather than think of ingenious ways to make something possible," Obousy says. "It's my conviction that when someone says something is 'impossible,' what they really mean is 'our current level of science cannot explain this, and I don’t have the motivation to explore beyond its boundaries.'"

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Explainer: 10 pieces of Star Trek tech

  • Paramount Pictures

    The latest reboot of the Star Trek franchise follows the story of a young James Kirk on his way to becoming captain of the Starship Enterprise. The movie gives Trekkies a fresh dose of fictional high-tech wizardry. But is any of this possible in the real world? Click the "Next" arrow above to see how 10 pieces of Trek tech, from teleportation to warp drive, are faring here on Earth.

    -- By John Roach, MSNBC contributor

  • Teleportation: a work in progress

    Ray Strange  /  AFP via Getty Images file

    "Beam me up, Scotty!" Oh, how easy travel would be if the technology existed to disintegrate our bodies in one place and nearly instantaneously make them reappear at our destination. Unfortunately, that kind of teleportation remains firmly fixed in the realm of Star Trek fiction. However, scientists are meeting with some success as they try to teleport messages encoded in beams of light across table-length distances, such as this experiment from 2002. More recent advances include teleporting information from one trapped atom to another.

  • Tricorder-like device scans for cancer

    Boris Rubinsky et al.

    Star Trek fans know tricorders as familiar handheld devices that scan unfamiliar planets (and organisms). Real-world citizens, too, are becoming familiar with a host of futuristic gizmos that do everything from reading a critter's DNA to scanning patients for cancerous tumors, as shown in this side-by-side comparison of a fictional tricorder (left) and a medical scan of simulated breast tumor displayed on a cell phone.

  • Deflector shield envisioned for Mars missions

    Ruth Bamford And John Bradford

    A so-called deflector shield surrounds the Starship Enterprise, protecting the spacecraft and its crew from lethal doses of radiation. Lab experiments now suggest that a portable magnetic shield could protect real-life astronauts on a mission to Mars. The shield would force harmful particles to curve around the ship. The engineering details remain to be worked out, and for now, the shield protects only against particles from the solar wind. Gamma rays and X-rays would remain a threat. An artistic depiction of the technology deployed on the Enterprise is shown here.

  • U.S. Air Force develops PHaSER

    Image: PHaSER
    U.s. Air Force

    The weapon of choice for Trekkies is the phaser, a device that directs an adjustable beam of energy at its target. The phaser is capable of a range of effects, from a momentary stun to instant obliteration. The U.S. Air Force has developed its own prototype device with the Star Trek moniker PHaSER (Personal Halting and Stimulation Response). The hefty gunlike device was originally developed to blind an attacker temporarily. A second laser has since been added capable of heating up skin.

  • Holodeck tech emerging

    Tom Uhlman  /  AP

    Starfleet members seeking knowledge or fun can step into holodecks to experience an interactive virtual reality eerily close to life itself. Similar technologies are beginning to emerge in the real world, including this 3-D lab at Wright State University in Ohio, where businesses can use the technology to speed up and improve the designs of products. An energy company is using it to enhance their search for oil. Other firms are embracing advances in video and audio technology to make telepresence, or videoconferencing, more realistic. The most lifelike experiences, however, remain in science fiction.

  • Tractor beam manipulates cells on a chip


    In Star Trek, tractor beams are used by starships and space stations to control the movement of objects usually to pull them in closer, tow them along, or push them away. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have used a tractor beam of light to pick up, hold and move around individual cells on the surface of a microchip. To demonstrate the technology, the researchers moved around and held in place 16 E. coli cells to spell out MIT, as shown in this image.

  • Cell phones are pretty good communicators

    Apple Inc. via AP

    Trek-style communicators are those little devices, handheld or sometimes worn as a badge, that allow Starfleet members to speak to others in different parts of the ship or different parts of a planet. Modern-day cell phones, including the iPhone shown here, just might wow even the likes of Captain Kirk.

  • Universal translators making strides


    In Star Trek, language is seldom a barrier thanks to universal translators, devices that allow people of different tongues to converse. Communication among cultures in the real world remains a challenge, but basic words and phrases are no longer stumbling blocks, thanks to gadgets such as the translator from iTRAVL shown here. Speak into the device, and it will translate the word or phrase and speak it aloud.

  • Cloaking devices coming out of hiding

    Naomi Halas, Rice University |

    Cloaking devices are rampant in science fiction, from Star Trek to Harry Potter but they are no longer confined to the imagination. Real-world scientists are creating new materials that manipulate wavelengths of light in ways that can hide objects from detection. This graphic shows the basic design of a 3-D metamaterial lined with nanocups that redirect the flow of light that hits it, making the object invisible.

  • Warp drive? Don't bet on it

    Les Bossinas  /  NASA

    The Enterprise can travel faster than light via something called warp drive — essentially, a device that warps the space-time continuum around a starship. Many scientists have batted around ideas about how to achieve blistering speeds in real life, but most experts have concluded that, at least for now, warping the fabric of space is beyond human understanding of the laws of physics. Among the difficulties is harnessing the energy required to kick-start the propulsion.


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