Researchers Invent Star Trek's Tractor Beam

Nobody’s going to be pulling enemy star fighters into a mothership Star Trek-style anytime soon, but researchers at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) and the Institute of Scientific Instruments (ISI, Czech Republic) have developed a tractor beam--or at least an experimental version of the concept.

Basically, they figured out how to make an optical field that allows them to reverse the normal forward-moving radiation pressure of light to create a negative force that pulls particles instead of pushing them.

This step forward opens the door for relatively inexpensive devices that can sort macromolecules, organelles, and cells through a process that we understand is called optical fractionation. Even more noteworthy is that because apparently optical particle manipulation and acoustic article manipulation are very similar, tractor beam technology could be used in fields other than photonics, such as biomedicine.

tractor beam technology
Tractor beam schematic

It’s amazing how science fiction points toward technologies of the future that eventually become real. In this case, maybe it’s a case of recursive science fiction wherein Gene Roddenberry time traveled to 2023 and then back to 1987 and wrote his series based on what he saw in the future. (Or did the tractor beam first appear in the original 1966 Star Trek? Trekkers and/or Trekkies, help us out here.)