July 16, 2013

Scientists levitate items with sound

Researchers devise a possible breakthrough for electronics and pharmaceutical industries.

By Meeri Kim / The Washington Post

Scientists have been able to use the power of sound to levitate small items -- including insects and fish -- for decades. But now researchers from Switzerland have figured out how to move objects around in midair, according to a new study.

The breakthrough in acoustic levitation will allow scientists to unlock "a huge amount of applications for this very powerful method," including in pharmaceutical and electronics manufacturing, said author and mechanical engineer Dimos Poulikakos of ETH Zurich, a science and technology university in Switzerland.

The study was published online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Poulikakos' team performed a number of midair experiments, such as combining water droplets or chemical solutions, inserting DNA into cells and even making a tiny portion of instant coffee.

They also levitated a wooden toothpick -- something that had never been done before -- while rotating it and moving it forward and backward.

Sound waves exert pressure when they hit a surface, but the effects are usually too small to notice. But if the intensity is cranked up high enough, sound has the ability to counteract the effects of gravity.

Poulikakos and his colleagues used levels of about 160 decibels; that's louder than standing near a rocket launch and is enough to rupture a human eardrum. But they were able to work without ear protection.

They took advantage of the fact that the frequency of sound -- the physical property that gives it a pitch -- also matters. Using 24,000 hertz (Hz), a level comparable to a dog whistle, they were unaffected by the noise. The upper range of human hearing is about 20,000 Hz.

Poulikakos' advance over motionless levitation will probably be useful to the pharmaceutical industry, allowing scientists to mix solutions in midair without the potential for contamination from a container, Weber said.

For now, scientists are able to use acoustic levitation to move only small, lightweight objects. Poulikakos said he will soon release new results that show his team moving heavier and more dense objects, such as steel balls.

 

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