Asier Marzo –
Mihai Caleap
Bruce Drinkwater

Bristol University
Senate House, Tyndall Ave,
Bristol, United Kingdom

Popular version of paper 2aPA8, “Taming tornadoes: Controlling orbits inside acoustic vortex traps”
Presented Tuesday afternoon, May 24, 2016, 11:05 AM, Salon H
171st ASA Meeting Salt Lake City

Tractor beams are mysterious beams that have the ability to attract objects towards the source of the emission (Figure 1). These beams have attracted the attention of both scientists and sci-fi fans. For instance, it is quite an iconic device in Star Wars or Star Trek where it is used by big spaceships to trap and capture smaller objects.


Figure 1. A sonic tractor beam working on air.

In the scientific community, they have been studied theoretically for decades and in 2014, a tractor beam made with light was realized [1]. It used the energy of the photons bouncing on a microsphere to keep it trapped laterally and at the same time heated the back of the sphere with different light patterns to pull it towards the laser source. The sphere had a diameter of 50 micrometres, was made of glass and coated with gold.

A tractor beam made with light can only manipulate very small particles and made of specific materials. Making a tractor beam which uses mechanical waves (i.e. sound or ultrasound) would enable the trapping of a much wider range of particle sizes and allow almost any combination of particle and host fluid materials, for example drug delivery agents within the human body.

Recently, it has been proven experimentally that a Vortex beam can act as a tractor beam both in air [2] and in water [3]. A Vortex beam (such as a first order Bessel beam) is analogous to a tornado of sound which is hollow in the middle and spirals about a central axis, the particles get trapped in the calm eye of the tornado (Figure 2).

Figure-02 - Acoustic Vortices

Figure 2. Intensity iso-surface of an Acoustic Vortex. 54 ultrasonic speakers emitting at 40kHz arranged in a hemisphere (see [2] for fuller details) create an acoustic vortex that traps the particle in the middle.

The problem is, that only very small particles are stably trapped inside the vortex. As the particles get bigger, they start to spin and orbit until being ejected (Figure 3). As in a tornado, only the small particles remain within the vortex whereas the larger ones get ejected.


Figure 3. Particle behaviour depending on its size: a small particle is trapped (a), a middle particle orbits (b) and big particles gets ejected (c).

Here we show that, contrary to a tornado, we can change the direction of an acoustic vortex thousands of times per second. In our paper, we prove that by rapidly switching the direction of the acoustic vortex it is possible to produce stable trapping of particles of various sizes. Furthermore, by adjusting the proportion of time that each vortex direction is emitted, the spinning speed of the particle can be controlled (Figure 4).

Figure-04 - Acoustic Vortices

Figure 4. Taming the vortex: a) the vortex rotates all the time in the same direction and this rotation is transferred to the particle. b) the vortex switches direction and thus the angular momentum is completely or partially cancelled, providing rotational control.

The ability to levitate and controllably rotate inside acoustic vortices particles such as liquids, crystals or even living cells enables new possibilities and processes for a variety of disciplines.


  1. Shvedov, V., Davoyan, A. R., Hnatovsky, C., Engheta, N., & Krolikowski, W. (2014). A long-range polarization-controlled optical tractor beam. Nature Photonics, 8(11), 846-850.
  2. Marzo, A., Seah, S. A., Drinkwater, B. W., Sahoo, D. R., Long, B., & Subramanian, S. (2015). Holographic acoustic elements for manipulation of levitated objects. Nature communications, 6.
  3. Baresch, D., Thomas, J. L., & Marchiano, R. (2016). Observation of a single-beam gradient force acoustical trap for elastic particles: acoustical tweezers. Physical Review Letters, 116(2), 024301.
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