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Star Trek tractor beam: 'Acoustic' tweezers to move things, varied medical uses

The Star Trek tractor beam has made a fresh appearance in the real world thanks to science this week, and the innovative device now has enough power to move objects above the microscopic level, shifting them with acoustic sound waves. While the ideas of such an ability to move objects with only sound, pressure, or temperature are indeed staggering to think about, this new “tractor beam” might actually have some real, important medical uses away from the realm of science fiction in modern life, too. Medical News reveals in an updated report this Saturday, May 31, 2014, that these ultrasonic waves can in fact act as “tweezers” that exert control over cell clusters and assist in procedures from cartilage implants to nanotechnology.

Tractor beam from Star Trek comes to life for science
Twitter Screen Shot, (Mental Floss)

Most people may only think the Star Trek tractor beam can exist in the widely known series, but this revolutionary invention actually has a number of important features that can benefit people’s lives in the here and now, argues some medical experts and scientists. Essentially, the “ray” of sound waves works like a pair of tweezers, using a pair of powerful beams to quite literally ensnare and subsequently manipulate cell clusters. This method can then shift items from one location to another, albeit only a short distance for now.

With little more than a push of a button — although the actual science behind this acoustic tractor beam is a lot more complex — the important medical possibilities of this new movement technology could truly change human lives. One such use of this ultrasonic sound power would be to potentially provide improved cartilage implants in future patients, diminishing the need for full operations like knee replacements for some. These narrow but specific sound fields could hold affected cells in a necessary position for a period of time while utilizing these invisible ”tweezers” to assist any body tissue to grow just the right way for a perfectly molded fit into someone’s knee.

BBC News also shares this week other medical and health benefits of this seeming Star Trek tractor beam, which include any procedure or activity that involves exerting targeted force on an object where optical tweezers are less useful. What’s more about this latest update to this tractor beam? It’s quite powerful, assures one of the Dundee University scientists behind the massive discovery.

"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," said Dr Christine Demore of Imsat on the important creation. "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."

Ultimately, it looks like the sky (or would it be space?) is the actual limit when it comes to the power and medical usefulness that this tractor beam might have. While the days when we can move big objects like cell phones (let alone humans) might remain several light years away, perhaps we can use what incredible progress we have also made to better human lives already — from nanotechnology to bioscience.

Professor Bruce Drinkwater of Bristol University, who helped in the development of the scientific program and control over the sound exertion factor, has said that the medical control and shifting mobility given to experts by this advancement can be used for a great many important things.

"Ultrasonic tweezers have all kinds of possible uses in bioscience, nanotechnology and more widely across industry. They offer big advantages over optical tweezers that rely on light waves and also over electromagnetic methods of cell manipulation; for example, they have a complete absence of moving parts and can manipulate not just one or two cells (or other objects) at a time but clusters of several centimetres across - a scale that makes them very suitable for applications like tissue engineering."

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