3-D Print Your Own Death Star 'Tractor Beam'

A team of physicists has published instructions and created a YouTube video for constructing a device that uses sound waves to move objects.

Ever wanted to be Darth Vader? Good news: You can now bring "Star Wars" to life with an actual "tractor beam" to move small objects using sound waves, in the comfort of your own home - at least if you own a 3-D printer.

A team of physicists, led by research assistant Asier Marzo of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, has released instructions in the journal Applied Physics Letters and on YouTube for how to create a plastic tractor-beam device. When sound waves travel through the device - a collection of carefully calibrated tubes - they become organized in such a way as to form a true tractor beam. This acoustic beam can pull tiny objects, like beads or even small insects, toward it using only the power of sound.

"Previously, we developed a tractor beam, but it was very complicated and pricey because it required a phase array, which is a complex electronic system," Marzo said in a statement. "In this paper, we made a simple, static tractor beam that only requires a static piece of matter."

The simple device is an advance of sonic levitation - the method of using the pressure of sound waves to move objects. It's very easy to push particles away with sound waves, Marzo said, but pulling a particle with a tractor beam is much harder.

"The most important thing is that it can attract the particle towards the source," he said.

click to play video

Fittingly, the 3D-printed tractor beam device looks like half of the Death Star from the "Star Wars" films. A printed bowl is fitted with an array of different-sized tubes, through which sound waves travel and are directed. This "metamaterial" can hold a small fly in place, as demonstrated by a highlight video.

The rest of the device is made from standard electronics and open-source hardware components from the supplier Arduino.

"The components are very simple, like an Arduino [board] and a motor driver, and everything can be bought on Amazon for less than 50 British pounds [about $70]," Marzo said.

The tubes in the tractor-beam device were a challenge to develop because they had to work despite the low precision of at-home 3-D printers, Marzo said. The team developed three versions of the tractor beam, each of which can manage different wavelengths of sound to trap objects of varying sizes. (A few millimeters is the upper limit in size right now, even for devices used in laboratories.)

The tractor beam could be useful for studying cells and other biological samples in microgravity - experiments that are now frequently done in space, Marzo said.

"Recently, there have been several papers about what happens if we levitate an embryo. How does it develop? Or what happens if we levitate bacteria?" he said. "For instance, they discovered Salmonella is three times more [virulent] when it's levitated. Certain microorganisms react differently to microgravity."

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