The new approach, published in Physical Review Letters today [Monday 22 January], uses rapidly fluctuating acoustic vortices, which are similar to tornadoes of sound, made of a twister-like structure with loud sound surrounding a silent core.
The Bristol researchers discovered that the rate of rotation can be finely controlled by rapidly changing the twisting direction of the vortices, this stabilises the tractor beam. They were then able to increase the size of the silent core allowing it to hold larger objects. Working with ultrasonic waves at a pitch of 40kHz, a similar pitch to that which only bats can hear, the researchers held a two-centimetre polystyrene sphere in the tractor beam. This sphere measures over two acoustic wavelengths in size and is the largest yet trapped in a tractor beam. The research suggests that, in the future much larger objects could be levitated in this way.
Dr Asier Marzo, lead author on the paper from Bristol's Department of Mechanical Engineering, said: "Acoustic researchers had been frustrated by the size limit for years, so its satisfying to find a way to overcome it. I think it opens the door to many new applications."
Dr Mihai Caleap, Senior Research Associate, who developed the simulations, explained: "In the future, with more acoustic power it will be possible to hold even larger objects. This was only thought to be possible using lower pitches making the experiment audible and dangerous for humans."
Bruce Drinkwater, Professor of Ultrasonics from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, who supervised the work, added: "Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications. I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."