Scientists Create Water-Based Tractor Beam That Can Control Floating Objects

Physicists at Australian National University have taken a bold step toward “Star Trek” tech with their latest invention — a water-based tractor beam that could eventually be used to clean up oil spills and control floating objects.

“We have figured out a way of creating waves that can force a floating object to move against the direction of the wave,” project leader Dr. Horst Punzmann from the Research School of Physics and Engineering said in a report.

“No one could have guessed this result.”

Using wave generators, a wave tank and a ping pong ball, the team was able to figure out the size and rate of waves necessary to shift the ball’s movement in any given direction — including against the movement of the waves themselves.

“We found that above a certain height, these complex three-dimensional waves generate flow patterns on the surface of the water,” Professor Michael Shats said. “The tractor beam is just one of the patterns, they can be inward flows, outward flows or vortices.”

The team reportedly used “advanced particle tracking tools” to discover the surface currents generated by the waves, but no current mathematical theory is able to fully explain the successful experiments, according to Punzmann.

“It’s one of the great unresolved problems, yet anyone in the bathtub can reproduce it,” Punzmann said. “We were very surprised no one had described it before.”

The team’s findings could significantly impact in the way oil spills are cleaned up, for example, and eventually lead to technologies capable of manipulating the movement of objects on water.


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