After a year away from YouTube, the ever-energetic [Styropyro] has returned with whiteboard in hand to remind us just how little we actually know about lasers. In the last month he’s really hit the ground running with plenty of new content, but one video of his particularly stands out: a practical demonstration of laser levitation. Even better, unlike most of his projects, it looks like we can replicate this one without killing ourselves or burning our house down!
For those unaware, laser levitation is probably as close as we’ll get to Star Trek-style tractor beams in our lifetimes. In fact, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program has been examining using the technology for capturing small particles in space, since it would allow sample collection without the risk of physical contamination. While the demonstration [Styropyro] performs lacks the “tractor” part of the equation (in other word’s, there’s no way to move the particle along the length of the beam) it does make us hopeful that this type of technology is not completely outside the reach of our home labs.
The trick seems to be with the focus of the laser beam itself. Your average laser pointer just doesn’t have the appropriate beam for this kind of work, but with a diode pulled from a DVD burner and a driver circuit made from parts out of the junk bin, the effect can be demonstrated very easily as long as you can keep the air in the room extremely still. Of course, what you’re trying to pick up is also very important, [Styropyro] has found that synthetic diamond powder works exceptionally well for this experiment. At about $1.60 a gram, it won’t break the bank either.
So how does it work? With a few trips to the aforementioned white board, Professor Pyro explains that the effect we’re seeing is actually electromagnetic. If the particle you want to levitate is small enough it will become polarized by the light, which is in itself an electromagnetic wave. Once you’ve got your mind wrapped around that, it logically follows that the levitating particle will experience the Lorentz force. Long story short, the particle is suspended in the air for the same reason that a projectile is ejected from a rail gun: if you’ve got enough power and the mass of the object is low enough, there will be an observable force.
We’ve been covering the work of [Styropyro] for years now, and are glad to see him back on YouTube creating new content and terrifying a new generation of viewers. Between this and the return of [Jeri Ellsworth], it’s like we’re experiencing a YouTube hacker Renaissance.