Bright Idea: New ‘Tractor Beam’ Proposal Relies on Negative Radiation Pressure

Tractor beams, a staple of science fiction, may be moving closer to science fact. In a paper published earlier this spring, physicists have proposed a structure that may enable light to pull objects.

Normally, light pushes on objects, albeit weakly. In the field of optical manipulation optical tweezers employ this pushing force to move microscopic objects from atoms to bacteria. The ability to pull as well would increase the precision and scope of optical manipulation. For spaceflight, engineers have proposed sails to capture the force exerted by light.

Rather than towing space vessels, the newly proposed tractor beam might be more useful in biology or medicine. If you want to pull something towards you, you just reduce the pressure, says Mordechai Segev, a physicist at Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, who describes his team’s idea in an April Optics Express paper. You make a little bit of vacuum, he adds. The problem is that in sensitive medical applications, such as lung surgery, it is important not to change the pressure or introduce any new gases. Here, the light will be the suction device, he says, so the pressure would not change at all. It is just the light — via

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