NYU Physics Engineers Develop Real-Life Tractor Beams (Sort Of)

Space technology from Star Trek will soon be a reality, or at least in principle. New York University researchers and engineers have developed a technique to create a tractor beam. It’s not exactly like the tractor beam on the USS Enterprise, but the principles behind it are comparable.

Physics duo David Ruffner and David Grier have used a Bessel beam as a tractor beam “to pull 30 micrometers sized silica spheres suspended in water towards a laser source.” A Bessel beam uses concentrated sources of light to circle around a single dot instead of a single beam. Unlike traditional and general laser beams, a Bessel beam does not diffract because of its light source. It can also reform if there’s an object in its pathway, and this is how it pulls particles towards the source.

Last year, a Chinese research team figured out how to refract a Bessel beam back to its source, making it possible to pull particles back to it, much like a tractor beam. The New York University research team fine-tuned this technique by using two Bessel beams and overlapping the beam’s light back to its source. The American pair will publish their results in “Physical Review Letters.”

The Star Trek tractor beam isn’t the only piece of Star Trek technology currently being developed. NASA is (sort of) developing warp drive technology, while Engineers at University of Alabama-Huntsville are working on Star Trek-style, fusion-powered “impulse engines.” It’s fascinating to witness the bridge between science fiction and science fact get smaller and smaller. We should always dare “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”


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