Levitation could be the next big science fiction technology to hit it big

Swiss scientists use sound waves to levitate and manipulate objects, such as water droplets and a wooden toothpick, in mid-air. (Video by Dimos Poulikakos, Daniele Foresti) (Washington Post)

Swiss scientists use sound waves to levitate and manipulate objects, such as water droplets and a wooden toothpick, in mid-air. (Video by Dimos Poulikakos, Daniele Foresti) (Washington Post)

Every month, there seems to be news of some fabulous science fiction concept that is ever closer to becoming science fact. In just the past few months, we’ve seen concepts go public for medical tricorders, augmented reality glasses, smart watches (although how much we actually want them is up for debate) and Jurassic Park-style de-extinction. Now, enter levitation, which could very well be the next science fiction concept to hit it big.

If all goes as planned, it may soon be possible for pharmaceutical researchers to levitate molecules in mid-air and for city planners to build super-fast transportation networks filled with levitating vehicles.

The latest development is the ability of Swiss researchers to use sound waves to levitate —  and then move — particles and objects in mid-air. Turns out, all acoustic levitation requires is blasting out sound at extremely loud levels (160 decibels – the deafening sound of a rocket launch) at a high enough frequency (24,000 hertz – the frequency of a dog whistle) that the human ear can’t detect. When those two conditions are met, some fascinating things start to happen. If you thought that gravity was the strongest force in the universe, think again – the Swiss researchers were able to defy gravity and move objects around a chess board-like device, mix particles in mid-air without touching them, and even levitate a toothpick. They even captured the mixing of molecules on a video scored to classical music.

This is more than fun with science – it could have some very serious applications for innovators. Inspired by similar types of acoustic levitation experiments happening elsewhere, for example, pharmaceutical researchers would have a frictionless way to mix molecules that would avoid possible contamination. In their experiments, the Swiss researchers were able to make instant coffee by combining water molecules with ground coffee. They were also able to insert pieces of DNA into cells.

Next up for levitation technology fans? Probably the most exciting levitation concept in years – the Hyperloop.

The innovation world is eagerly awaiting news about Elon Musk’s Hyperloop – a super-fast mode of transportation that is apparently made possible by some sort of levitation technology. An announcement is expected on Aug. 12.

 

 

Travelers will be able to make the trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco in something like 30 minutes. Elon Musk has even referred to the Hyperloop as the fifth primary mode of transportation: trains, planes, boats, automobiles and, you know, Hyperloops. It’s still speculation at this point, but the Hyperloop could work by using some form of magnetic levitation to transport vehicles at very high speeds. Musk continues to drop hints about the project, with the latest hint being that it will somehow be a mix between the Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table. And it will run 24/7. And it will be solar-powered.

OK, it’s pretty clear this thing, assuming it’s ever realized, is going to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

That’s right, these bold plans for levitation technology are not a sure thing. Remember the excitement about quantum levitation almost two years ago now? When was the last time you heard anyone talking about that? And that Hyperloop concept, well, it sounds wonderful, but there are a number of reasons that have nothing to do with technology why it will probably never, ever see the light of day.

That being said, it may be time to revisit some of our most beloved sci-fi films to think about capabilities of levitation technology. Levitating hovercrafts, anyone? Frictionless manufacturing machines? Levitation could be big business because it’s a concept that’s so deeply rooted in our pop culture — we all inherently can appreciate how cool it is to lift up and move an object without ever touching it. At the very least, all of this levitation technology is going to put a few magicians out of business. The innovation community has just raised the ante on what’s possible.

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