Tractor beams were invented by science fiction as all-purpose equivalents of remote moving equipment. The tractor beams could move objects around, tow spaceships, and generally do everything that science hadn’t yet figured out how to do in space without the inelegant (and rather impractical) “get out and push” solutions to storyline problems. Now, thanks to a range of different types of particle size analyzer technology and its relations, tractor beams are real, at least to move particles, even in space.

The basic idea of the tractor beam is to be able to grab and handle particles. That’s pretty ambitious in itself, but the payoff has been extremely valuable in terms of baseline technology with an infinite number of applications. This very precise handling has immediate applications across the board in a vast range of scientific disciplines, notably biology and nano science.

The tractor beam story so far

There are two basic forms of tractor beams-

  • “Optical tweezers” (which was developed on an iPad app, believe it or not) which uses two beams of light, varying the strength of the light to manipulate fine particles.
  • The “spiral” form of tractor beam, which uses solenoid electromagnetic beams to create a structured beam to manipulate particles and drag them back to the light source. Obviously, this is a good option when you want to extract particles.

There is a third, but at this stage only theoretical, option called a Bessel beam, which uses both light and EM fields to manage particles in the beam.

NASA is supporting a project to use light beams on the next Mars Rover to obtain particles for sampling. One of the big incentives for this application is that light beams are considered considerably cheaper than “digger” options. They require less hardware, use up less space and weight on vehicles, and create space for more functions.

Tractor beams and issue in particle analysis

Particle analysis has become core materials science in the most literal sense of the expression. Particle analyses deal with fundamental issues like particle size measurement and particle size and shape, which are critical tools in working with the properties of materials on all levels. The tractor beams’ ability to physically manage particles adds a vast new dimension to this fundamental work.

The logic is straightforward enough:

  • If you can physically access discrete particles, and get a clear picture of issues affecting those particles, your analysis is that much more efficient and effective.
  • The need to extrapolate and define issues and problems from particle properties by observation en masse leaves quite a lot to be desired. If you can physically examine particles and their characteristics, your analyses will be able to document a range of properties from direct, verifiable examples.
  • New particle types and their characteristics need to be managed carefully, particularly in nano science. A nano particle size analyzer needs all the help it can get. The ever evolving particle size standards, in which particles are getting forever smaller aren’t making particle handling any easier.

The tractor beams have come along at a critical junction in particle science’s history. They’re the right tools at the right time. Keep an eye on this subject, because this is only the beginning of a brand new scientific methodology.


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