Beam me up, Scotty! Science Fiction Tractor Beams Plausible
"Beam me up, Scotty!" is a well-known phrase and expression that everyone thinks came from the science fiction TV series and movies of Star Trek. Captain Kirk is said to use this phrase when he wants his chief engineer, Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, to get him transported back to the Starship Enterprise.
It appears that the exact phrase was not actually spoken in any Star Trek film or the television show. The closest Admiral Kirk came to uttering these words was when Captain Kirk said "Scotty, beam me up," in the Star Trek TV movie.
Although the process of transport is not known it is probably related to the concept of 'tractor beams' that are used elsewhere in Star Trek where light beams are used to anchor objects in space and to pull them into the mother ship. Many people have claimed to have seen Flying Saucers beaming up objects and people, with some even recalling their experiences. Tractor beams are not yet a reality in the real world, but scientists have made the first steps - using light beams to move small objects up to a metre or so, with possible distances of 10 metres or more possible.
Laser research projects based at the Australian National University (ANU) have developed a device that can transport small particles for 1.5 m only using the power of light in a laser beam. Physicists have been able to nudge microscopic particles around for tiny distances using lasers for many years. Optical tweezers that can shift tiny objects for a few millimetres at a time have been developed and used for manipulating hazardous chemicals and objects using twin laser beams. But no the world record has been broken more that a thousand fold at the ANU.
The device works by creating a hollow laser beam, with the core slightly larger than the tiny glass particles that are to be moved. The air surrounding the particle is heated up by the laser light, however the dark centre of the beam in the core of the hollow beam stays cool. When the beam surrounds a particle the force of the air heated by the beam contacting one side of the particle is enough to nudge the particle back to the centre and keep it in the centre of the beam. The effect of the laser light heating the air near the particle creates convection with the heated air carrying the particle up or along into the cooler air in the core. It is a bit like a vacuum cleaner, with the temperature difference creating a vacuum like pulling effect through convection and differences in temperature (and density). If a second laser is added on the other side of the first beam, it can exert a second pulling force on the particle. This means that the direction and speed of the particle moves can be easily controlled by changing the orientation and brightness of the two beams.
The researchers claim that their technique could probably work over distances of 10 meters or more in air. The current record transport distance of 1.5m was restricted by the length of the apparatus they were using for the experiment.
Because the method uses heated gas to push and pull the particles around, it would not work in the vacuum of outer space, and so simulate the tractor beams in Star Trek. This would require different technology, but similar concepts could be applied. However in the atmosphere of Plant Earth there are many possible uses of this technology, especially because the distances possible have been increased so dramatically. The applications include the development of more advanced laser tweezers for moving hazardous substances and microbes around safely. This includes radioactive chemicals, poisons and microbes that could be contained in tiny glass spheres for transport.
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© 2010 Dr. John Anderson
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