Scientist float levitation theory

August 6, 2007

St Andrews scientists have discovered a new way of levitating tiny objects - paving the way for future applications in nanotechnology.

Theoretical physicists at the University of St Andrews (UK) have created `incredible levitation effects' by engineering the force of nature which normally causes objects to stick together by quantum force. By reversing this phenomenon, known as `Casimir force', the scientists hope to solve the problem of tiny objects sticking together in existing novel nanomachines.

Professor Ulf Leonhardt and Dr Thomas Philbin of the University's School of Physics & Astronomy believe that they can engineer the Casimir force of quantum physics to cause an object to repel rather than attract another in a vacuum.

Casimir force (discovered in 1948 and first measured in 1997) can be demonstrated in a gecko's ability to stick to a surface with just one toe. However, it can cause practical problems in nanotechnology, and ways of preventing tiny objects from sticking to each other is the source of much interest.

Professor Leonhardt explained, "The Casimir force is the ultimate cause of friction in the nano-world, in particular in some microelectromechanical systems. Such systems already play an important role - for example tiny mechanical devices which triggers a car airbag to inflate or those which power tiny `lab on chip' devices used for drugs testing or chemical analysis. Micro or nano machines could run smoother and with less or no friction at all if one can manipulate the force."

The pair have worked out how to turn the normally `sticky' quantum force of empty space from attraction to repulsion using a specially developed lens placed between two objects.

"In order to reduce friction in the nanoworld, turning nature's stickiness into repulsion could be the ultimate remedy. Instead of sticking together, parts of micromachinery would levitate," said Professor Leonhardt.

Though it is possible in principle for humans to levitate, scientists are a long way off developing the technology for such feats.

"At the moment, in practice it is only going to be possible for micro-objects with the current technology, since this quantum force is small and acts only at short ranges. For now, human levitation remains the subject of cartoons, fairytales and tales of the paranormal," explained Professor Leonhardt.

The research is due to be published in the August edition of the New Journal of Physics.

Source: University of St Andrews

Explore further: The universe as we know it

Related Stories

The universe as we know it

November 17, 2015

Sitting in a small French bistro across from Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles, Clifford Johnson held the pumpkin-hued drinking straw parallel to the table.

Explainer: What is mass?

November 12, 2015

When it comes to electrons, Higgs bosons or photons, they don't have much going for them. They possess spin, charge, mass and … that's about it.

Incompressible electrons

November 2, 2015

Helium usually reminds people of colorful gas balloons. However, helium is much more than the filling for these children's treats.  It also helps quantum physicists to study the most exotic and hidden properties of matter. ...

Recommended for you

CERN collides heavy nuclei at new record high energy

November 25, 2015

The world's most powerful accelerator, the 27 km long Large Hadron Collider (LHC) operating at CERN in Geneva established collisions between lead nuclei, this morning, at the highest energies ever. The LHC has been colliding ...

'Material universe' yields surprising new particle

November 25, 2015

An international team of researchers has predicted the existence of a new type of particle called the type-II Weyl fermion in metallic materials. When subjected to a magnetic field, the materials containing the particle act ...

Exploring the physics of a chocolate fountain

November 24, 2015

A mathematics student has worked out the secrets of how chocolate behaves in a chocolate fountain, answering the age-old question of why the falling 'curtain' of chocolate surprisingly pulls inwards rather than going straight ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.