There are plenty of ways to make something hover in the air. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania just added another to the list. According to a Wired report, the team has found a way to make things hover using light alone.
This is the first time anyone has successfully levitated a large object using light. The technique is promising and has serious applications for things like studying the weather and space exploration.
It is already being eyed by NASA for future Mars missions. Here on Earth, the light-based levitating tech could be used to help researchers study the hard-to-reach mesosphere.
The team’s research is published in the journal Science Advances.
The UPenn team has been studying light-based levitation for some time. However, it’s worth noting that the idea of moving things with light, also known as light-induced flow, has been around for some time. Previous researchers have been able to make aerosol compounds float and sort tiny particles. However, the approach has never been used with an object that’s big enough to handle in the real world.
When the UPenn researchers started their experiment, they weren’t sure what would happen. It turns out, the result was impressive to everyone. Mechanical engineering doctoral candidate Mohsen Azadi told Wired, “When the two samples lifted there was this gasp between all four of us.”
The two “samples” were tiny plastic plates made out of Mylar. Each one features a special coating on its underside that heats up as LEDs beam light up from underneath it. That heat charges air particles under the plate, therefore causing it to levitate.
Although this experiment took place in the lab, Azadi and his team created a theoretical model that predicts what would happen with plates of different sizes. They believe that it could be used to levitate a plate equipped with various environmental sensors as far as 50 miles into the air.
For now, the idea is still highly theoretical. There are many challenges to address before it can be deployed in the real world. Even so, it is a promising new approach that could be a tremendous aid for researchers in the future.
Eyes in the Mesosphere
It’s no secret that the many layers of the Earth’s atmosphere are diverse and complicated in their own ways. The mesosphere, which is approximately 31 to 53 miles overhead, is the most difficult to study. That’s because the air there is thick enough to burn up orbiting hardware but not thick enough to provide lift for something like a weather balloon or airplane.
Igor Bargatin, a UPenn mechanical engineering professor tells Wired, “Sometimes it’s called the ignorosphere, in joke. We just don’t have access to it. You can send a rocket for a few minutes at a time, but that’s very different from doing measurements using airplanes or balloons.”
Researchers believe the light-based levitation tech could be a solution. It would theoretically allow scientists to send sensors to the mesosphere and leave them there for extended periods of time.
For those studying Earth, the mesosphere provides valuable data related to climate change and ozone damage. However, the applications away from our planet may be more exciting.
NASA is reportedly interested in the technology because the Martian atmosphere is similar to the Earth’s mesosphere. Attaching light-based levitation hardware to a rover could allow unmanned craft to gather new information about the Red Planet.
It will be interesting to see the ways researchers utilize and develop this tech in the years to come. For now, it is a promising breakthrough and an impressive feat of engineering by the UPenn team.