Moving objects precisely with sound | Science & Technology

In 2018, Arthur Ashkin won the Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing optical tweezers: laser beams that can be used to manipulate microscopic particles. While useful for many biological applications, optical tweezers require extremely controlled, static conditions to work properly.

“Optical tweezers work by creating a light ‘hotspot’ to trap particles, like a ball falling into a hole. But if there are other objects in the vicinity, this hole is difficult to create and move around,” says Romain Fleury, head of the Laboratory of Wave Engineering in EPFL’s School of Engineering.

Fleury and postdoctoral researchers Bakhtiyar Orazbayev and Matthieu Malléjac have spent the last four years trying to move objects in uncontrolled, dynamic environments using soundwaves. In fact, the team’s method — wave momentum shaping — is entirely indifferent to an object’s environment or even its physical properties. All the information that’s required is the object’s position, and the soundwaves do the rest.

“In our experiments, instead of trapping objects, we gently pushed them around, as you might guide a puck with a hockey stick,” Fleury explains.

The unconventional method, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Spark program, has been published in Nature Physics in collaboration with researchers from the University of Bordeaux in France, Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, and the Vienna University of Technology in Austria.

Very simple, very promising

If soundwaves are the hockey stick in Fleury’s analogy, then a floating object like a ping-pong ball is the puck. In the lab’s experiments, the ball was floating on the surface of a large tank of water, and its position was captured by an overhead camera. Audible soundwaves emitted from a speaker array at either end of the tank directed the ball along a pre-determined path, while a second array of microphones ‘listened’ to the feedback, called a scattering matrix, as it bounced off of the moving ball. This…


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