Time Lords, rejoice. Scientists have invented what is essentially the prototype to a working sonic screwdriver, the device made famous by the time-traveling Gallifreyan star of “Doctor Who.” Their technique uses multiple focused sound waves to pin objects in place in mid-air, and it is eerily effective – so much so that they’ve also managed to construct a “gauntlet of levitation,” or GauntLev, which can move and even carefully rotate objects without any physical contact whatsoever.
As their Nature Communications paper notes with a curious sense of nonchalance, acoustic levitation has actually been demonstrated many times before. Arguably, the most memorable example was described in a 2006 study, where linearly focused acoustic waves were used to lift ants, ladybugs and juvenile fish off the ground. The huge advance made in this study, however, is the ability to use multiple sources of acoustic waves to move objects through the air with incredible precision.
The sonic screwdriver. The small object is a polystyrene ball. BristolIG via YouTube
Although only very small objects can currently be transported using this sonic technology, the applications for this technology are boundless, particularly in the medical sciences. The team, led by researchers from the University of Bristol, suggest that these tools could be used to manipulate particles and drug capsules inside our body without invasively breaching any tissue.
They write in their study that their technology would also allow professionals “to manipulate cells, liquids, compounds or living things without touching or contaminating them.” Other potential uses for the sonic gauntlet, screwdriver and the wonderfully named “ultra tongs” include “applications in tractor beams, containerless handling of matter and tangible displays.”
Sound waves are able to vibrate particles. As a type of longitudinal wave, they move particles parallel to the direction of the wave motion. This means that sound waves, at their front end, can compress particles, which ultimately causes them to spring forward and move. Focused, energetic sound waves can therefore move objects, and this ability has been demonstrated in the past across a plethora of papers.
The GauntLev. BristolIG via YouTube
One recent study even described a working “ultrasonic screwdriver,” which used a beam of sound waves to non-invasively open a small hole in the blood-brain barrier in order to safely deliver chemotherapy drugs to the brain. However, precise manipulation of levitated objects hasn’t really been showcased – until now.
This particular team of researchers have developed arrays of acoustic transducers, all of which emit tiny sonic beams whose energies can be reduced or amplified at will. This in effect creates “sonic traps,” points in the air where various waves meet to generate a compressional point that can hold an object in place.
In order to demonstrate the viability of this method, these acoustic arrays were placed in a needle-like screwdriver, a glove-like gauntlet, and a pair of tongs. As the videos clearly demonstrate, small polystyrene spheres could be held, rotated and transported through the air with incredible precision.
You may not be able to get a fully operational sonic screwdriver just yet, but flamboyant coats and blue boxes are available. Time travel not included. Inci Gundag/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
“The presented prototypes still have limited forces but symbolize a milestone in our expectations of future technology,” the team concludes on the Bristol Interaction Group website. Although it will be a fairly long time before you’ll be able to pick one of these up and pretend to be a chronologically displaced, blue box-owning alien, this is a wonderful example of life imitating art, and science fiction taking one step towards reality.