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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