Scientists develop "tractor beam" technology

Wednesday, 06 June, 2001

A "tractor beam" that can reach out, trap and move objects has been developed by scientists in the United Kingdom. But while fictional tractor beams of the kind depicted in Star Trek can ensnare a spaceship, the real version works at a microscopic level.

The beam consists of a corkscrew of twisting laser light that is able to seize hold of objects as small as a protein molecule and twirl them round. The scientists believe it will be an invaluable tool for manipulating elements of living cells or components of micro-machines.

Dr Kishan Dholakia, a member of the research team at St Andrews University in Scotland that developed the system, said: "Our technique could be used to drive motors, mixers, centrifuges and other rotating parts in cheap, tiny, automated technologies of the future".

Components like these might one day appear on microchip laboratories capable of performing a host of chemical and biological tests at super-fast speed.

So far the scientists have tried out the system with glass beads 100 times thinner than a human hair, and a tiny glass rod which could be used for stirring minute amounts of liquid. They also used the beam to rotate a hamster chromosome to demonstrate its potential for studying structures inside the cell.

A proper tractor beam must be able to rotate objects as well as move them.

For further information please contact External Relations office, University of St Andrews phone: +44 1334 462101 or via fax: +44 1334 462030.

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