Scientists at Dundee University have boldly gone where no man has gone before by developing a working ‘tractor beam’.
Remember watching episodes of Star Trek and seeing the SS Enterprise save the day by pulling another spaceship or object towards it at a crucial moment? Well, this ability is no longer confined to the realms of science fiction or high-tech special effects. Physicists at the university have successfully managed to get an ultrasound device to exert force on an object and pull it towards an energy source.
Apparently this is the first time a working acoustic tractor beam has been used to move anything bigger than a microscopic target. The team’s work was carried out as part of a £3.6m programme initiated by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and pooled the knowledge and expertise of four UK universities (Bristol, Dundee, Glasgow and Southampton) with industrial firms. The partnership between the universities and industry has played a pivotal role in developing ultrasound devices and capabilities that are far more sophisticated than anything previously seen.
The results of the research, which have been published in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters demonstrate that it is possible to exert sufficient force on an object around one centimetre in size and either hold it or move it by directing twin beams of ultrasound energy from towards the back of the object.
The team used an ultrasound device that is already clinically approved for use in MRI-guided surgery and it is hoped that this technology can be put to use in medicine and have a significant impact on the development of ultrasound-based clinical techniques. Among many potential applications for this research is using ultrasound surgery to treat tumours. Highly focused ultrasound can act like a magnifying glass and heat tissue sufficiently to kill it: if the ultrasound can be pushed to the exact area being treated, tumours could be destroyed more effectively.
Similarly, the technique could also be used in chemotherapy. If a drug can be contained in a bubble that could be pushed by ultrasound to the precise area being treated, not only could the treatment be more effective but it would have significantly less adverse effects on the patient’s body.
However, the team from the University’s Institute for Medical Science and Technology refuse to rest on their laurels, and they continue to gain inspiration from sci-fi television shows. One of their latest projects has been to use ultrasound to create a ‘sonic screwdriver’ as wielded by a certain Doctor Who.
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