You can now 3D print your own sonic tractor beam

4 Jan 2017

The 3D printed, handheld sonic tractor beam. Image: Asier Marzo

With some materials and a 3D printer, anyone can now 3D print their very own sonic tractor beams that use sound to attract the minutest of objects.

It might sound like a device found in Star Trek, but the ‘sonic tractor beam’ was a concept first developed last year by a Spanish PhD student, showing it was possible to trap and pull an object using sound waves from only one direction.

The technology was developed from years of research into sonic levitation, but was advanced to the point of not just pushing objects at the researcher’s will, but pulling them in, too.

Based on his previous breakthrough, Asier Marzo and a team of fellow researchers at the University of Bristol have managed to achieve a method to produce a sonic tractor beam using 3D printed parts, thereby drastically reducing its cost.

By doing a cost analysis of the first sonic tractor beam, Marzo saw that much of the expense arose from a complex electronic system known as the phased array.

In this cheaper 3D printed version, the team was able to do the exact same pulling function using only a static piece of matter.

‘It’s quite handy’

As the sound passes through these tubes found in the static piece of matter, it has the correct phases to create a tractor beam using a device of the same size as the first experiment, with less of the complexity.

“The most important thing is that it can attract the particle towards the source,” said Marzo.

“It’s very easy to push particles from the source, but what’s hard is to pull them toward the source; to attract the particles. When you move the tractor beam, the particle moves, but otherwise the trap is static. It can levitate small plastics; it can also levitate a fly and small biological samples. It’s quite handy.”

Having now published the open source plans through a research paper in Applied Physics Letters, Marzo believes that all of the parts necessary to make this handheld device will cost just $70 on Amazon.

Aside from impressing friends, the sonic tractor beam could have a number of different research uses, including being a new tool for studying low-gravity effects on biological samples.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic