Dundee scientists create real-life tractor beam

SCOTTISH physicists have turned science fiction into reality by creating a Star Trek-style tractor beam.

A scene from Star Trek III
A scene from Star Trek III

Researchers at Dundee University – working in collaboration with colleagues at Southampton University and Illinois Wesleyan University – used 
ultrasound to exert force behind an object and pull it towards the energy source.

The breakthrough has been branded a “functioning acoustic tractor beam” which could prove a major benefit in the treatment of tumours.

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Dr Christine Demore, of the Institute for Medical Science and Technology (Imsat) at Dundee, said: “This is the first time anyone has demonstrated a working acoustic tractor beam and the first time such a beam has been used to move anything bigger than microscopic targets.

“We were able to show that you could exert sufficient force on an object around one centimetre in size to hold or move it, by directing twin beams of energy from the ultrasound array towards the back of the object.”

The team used an ultrasound device that is already clinically approved for use in MRI-guided ultrasound surgery.

Dr Demore added: “Our research could lead to big advances in the application of ultrasound-based techniques in sectors such as healthcare.

“What we focus on is medical clinical applications. One of the big topics is using ultrasound surgery to treat tumours.

“Highly focused ultrasound can, like a magnifying glass, heat tissue enough to kill it. If we can push the ultrasound to the area needing to be treated, we can kill the tumour more effectively and efficiently.”

She added that it could be used for chemotherapy treatment, which can have devastating effects on the body.

Dr Demore said: “If we can encapsulate a drug in a bubble and push the drug to the exact area we want to treat, then it will be more effective and cause less adverse effects on bodies.”

She added that the technology could also be used in the oil industry.The results of their research have been published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

The team’s work was carried out as part of a £3.6 million “Electronic Sonotweezers: Particle Manipulation with Ultrasonic Arrays” programme, initiated by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The programme combines expertise at four UK universities – Bristol, Dundee, Glasgow and Southampton – as well as a range of industrial partners.

Professor Sandy Cochran, of the Dundee University, said, “Our partnership with industry has been vital to developing devices and capabilities that are delivering unprecedented sophistication in the field of ultrasound”.

EPSRC invests around £800m a year in research and postgraduate training to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered include information technology, structural engineering, mathematics and materials science.

This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements in health, lifestyle and culture.

EPSRC works alongside other research councils with responsibility for other areas of research. They work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.