Physicists Create Tractor Beam for Atoms

Rather than sucking space ships into a space-station, a tractor beam created by University of Adelaide researcher Ashby Hilton and his colleagues pulls atoms into a microscopic hole at the center of a special optical fiber.

Atomic chamber in which tractor beams were created. Image credit: Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing.

Atomic chamber in which tractor beams were created. Image credit: Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing.

“Although tractor beams are green or blue in the movies, in this case the trap is made of invisible infrared light,” Hilton said.

“The beam grabs hold of atoms that are floating in a chamber that is almost completely emptied of gas — a little sample of outer space on Earth.”

“Every atom that enters the tractor beam is pulled into the fiber — there is no escape. And once sucked into the interior of the optical fiber the atoms can be held for long periods of time.”

“Our experiments show that we can very precisely control light to produce exactly the right conditions to control atoms.”

The tractor beam works by the infrared light interacting with the atoms to create a change in energy which drives the atoms to the most intense part of the light beam.


“What is really exciting is that now we have the possibility to do quantum experiments on these trapped atoms,” said senior author Dr. Philip Light, also from the University of Adelaide.

“Our first experiments intend to use these stored atoms as elements of a quantum memory. We hope that our work may eventually form part of absolutely secure communications channel that is of obvious high interest to defense, intelligence and industry.”

The team is now moving onto the next stage in which the tractor beam is formed from a hollow cone of light rather than a solid beam of light. In this new configuration the atoms will be held at the center of the light cone where it is perfectly dark.

“We’re manipulating and measuring individual atoms and molecules to sense the world around us,” said University of Adelaide’s Professor Andre Luiten, co-author of the study.

“This new era of quantum sensing is opening up diverse new possibilities from attempting to detect disease through finding particular molecules in the breath, to assisting miners and defense by detecting anomalous magnetic fields associated with mineral deposits or covert submarine activity.”

The team’s work is published in the journal Physical Review Applied.


A.P. Hilton et al. 2018. High-efficiency cold-atom transport into a waveguide trap. Phys. Rev. Applied 10 (4): 044034; doi: 10.1103/PhysRevApplied.10.044034


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