Water-Based Tractor Beam

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Researchers in Australia have demonstrated a “tractor beam” capable of manipulating floating objects from a distance using surface waves on water. And, unlike some research, you can try to replicate this result right in the comfort of your own bathtub! When a wave generator oscillates up and down, it creates surface waves that move objects and particles on the water’s surface. When the wave amplitudes are small, the outgoing wave fronts tend to be planar, as in part (a) of the figure above. These planar waves push surface flow away from the wave generator in a central outward jet, and new fluid is entrained from the sides to replace it. This creates the kind of flowfield shown in the streaklines of part (b).

Increasing the amplitude of the surface waves drastically changes the surface flow’s behavior. Larger wave amplitudes are more susceptible to instabilities due to the nonlinear nature of the surface waves. This means that the planar wave fronts seen in part (a) break down into a three-dimensional wavefield, like the one shown in part (c). Near the wave-maker, the surface waves now behave chaotically. This pulsating motion ejects surface flow parallel to the wave-maker, which in turn draws fluid and any floating object toward the wave-maker. The corresponding surface flowfield is shown in part (d). The researchers are refining the process, but they hope the physics will one day be useful in applications oil spill clean-up. (Video credit: Australia National University; image and research credit: H. Punzmann et al. 1, 2; via; submitted by Tracy M)

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