Levitating With Light

The University of Pennsylvania has a team that did a little light research. Well, not light in the usual sense of that phrase. They used very strong light to levitate Mylar disks in a vacuum chamber.

Of course, it is no secret that light can exert pressure. That’s how solar sails work and some scientists have used it to work with aerosols and the like. But this appears to be the first time light lifted a large item against gravity. The team claims that their tests showed that a sunlight-powered flying vehicle might carry up to ten milligrams of payload. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s impressive and the paper mentions that since the lift is not from aerodynamic forces, there might be applications in flying at very high altitudes.

The Mylar disks were 500 nanometers thick and had a 300 nanometer layer of carbon nanotubes beneath. The nanotubes absorb light, make the disks more rigid, and improve the Mylar’s surface-gas characteristics. The light source had a strong center beam and an even stronger ring around the center beam that causes the disk to remain over the center beam. The LED system used eight arrays, each consuming 100 watts of input power.

Preparing the disk might be difficult, but the LED power isn’t that hard. Even if you do like the researchers did and use water cooling.

Ultrasonic levitation rig.

Phased Array Levitation Is Science In Action

Levitation may seem like magic. However, for certain objects, and in certain conditions, it’s actually a solved technology. If you want to move small particles around or do experiments with ultrasonic haptic feedback, you might find SonicSurface to be a useful platform for experimentation.

The build comes to us from [UpnaLab], and is no small feat of engineering. It packs in 256 ultrasonic emitters in a 16×16 grid, with individual phase control across the entire panel. This allows for the generation of complex ultrasonic wave fields over the SonicSurface board. Two boards can be paired together in a vertically opposed configuration, too. This allows the levitation of tiny particles in 3D space.

As you might expect, an FPGA is pressed into service to handle the heavy lifting – in this case, an Altera CoreEP4CE6. Commands are sent to the SonicSurface by a USB-to-serial connection from an attached PC.

The board is largely limited to the levitation of small spherical pieces of foam, with the ultrasonic field levitating them in midair. However, the project video shows how these tiny pieces of foam can be attached to threads, tapes, and other objects in order to manipulate them with the ultrasonic array.

It may not be a simple project, but it serves as a great basis for your own levitation experiments. Of course, if you want to start smaller, that’s fine too. If you come up with any great levitation breakthroughs of your own, be sure to let us know.

Levitation By Sound

Levitating things with magnets is no great feat these days. We don’t see as many projects with sonic levitation. However, Japanese engineers have a new method to lift objects using sound. The process isn’t totally reliable yet, but it may lead to better methods in the future. You can see a video about the work below.

Manipulating very small items via laser or acoustics isn’t new. However, there are significant limitations to current methods. This new approach uses an array of hemispherical ultrasound transducers. By controlling the amplitude and phase of each transducer, an acoustic trap forms and can pick up a 3 mm polystyrene ball without direct contact.

Manipulating objects without contact interests us for a few reasons, not the least of which is circuit assembly. Robust technology of this type could also add new dimensions to additive manufacturing. Of course, it is a long way from a 3 mm polystyrene ball to a surface mount component. However, you have to admit watching components just float through the air to their final resting places would be something to see.

Not that we haven’t seen sonic levitation before. Magnetic levitation tends to be easier, but also has some limitations.

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A Mobius Strip Track For Superconductor Levitation

Superconductors are interesting things, though we don’t really rely on them for much in our day to day lives. They’d be supremely useful, if only they didn’t need to be so darned cold. While the boffins toil away in the lab on that problem however, there’s still some fun to be had, as demonstrated by the Möbius Strip levitation track at Ithaca College.  (Video, embedded below.)

The rig takes advantage of the fact that superconductors can levitate over magnets, and vice versa. Under certain conditions, the superconductor can even lock into position over a magnet, due to flux pinning, wherein flux “tubes” from the magnet’s field penetrate a superconductor and are pinned in place by currents in the superconductor. It’s an awe-inpsiring effect, with the superconducting material appearing to magically float at a locked height above the magnetic surface, quite distinct from traditional magnetic levitation.

Construction of the track wasn’t straightforward. Early attempts at producing a Möbius Strip twisted through 540 degrees were unsuccessful in steel. The team then switched tack, using a flexible plastic which was much more pliable. This was then covered in neodymium magnets to create the necessary field, and the resulting visual effect is one of a silver-bricked magnetic road.

It’s a great display, and one that quite intuitively demonstrates the concepts of both a Möbius Strip and superconducting levitation. If room-temperature semiconductors become a real thing, there’s every possibility this could become an always-on installation. It’s also the trick behind one of the coolest hoverboards we’ve ever seen. Video after the break.

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Hackaday Links: November 22, 2020

Remember DSRC? If the initialism doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry — Dedicated Short-Range Communications, a radio service intended to let cars in traffic talk to each other, never really caught on. Back in 1999, when the Federal Communications Commission set aside 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9-GHz band, it probably seemed like a good idea — after all, the flying cars of the future would surely need a way to communicate with each other. Only about 15,000 vehicles in the US have DSRC, and so the FCC decided to snatch back the whole 75-MHz slice and reallocate it. The lower 45 MHz will be tacked onto the existing unlicensed 5.8-GHz band where WiFi now lives, providing interesting opportunities in wireless networking. Fans of chatty cars need not fret, though — the upper 30 MHz block is being reallocated to a different Intelligent Transportation System Service called C-V2X, for Cellular Vehicle to Everything, which by its name alone is far cooler and therefore more likely to succeed.

NASA keeps dropping cool teasers of the Mars 2020 mission as the package containing the Perseverance rover hurtles across space on its way to a February rendezvous with the Red Planet. The latest: you can listen to the faint sounds the rover is making as it gets ready for its date with destiny. While we’ve heard sounds from Mars before — the InSight lander used its seismometer to record the Martian windPerseverance is the first Mars rover equipped with actual microphones. It’s pretty neat to hear the faint whirring of the rover’s thermal management system pump doing its thing in interplanetary space, and even cooler to think that we’ll soon hear what it sounds like to land on Mars.

Speaking of space, back at the beginning of 2020 — you know, a couple of million years ago — we kicked off the Hack Chat series by talking with Alberto Caballero about his “Habitable Exoplanets” project, a crowd-sourced search for “Earth 2.0”. We found it fascinating that amateur astronomers using off-the-shelf gear could detect the subtle signs of planets orbiting stars half a galaxy away. We’ve kept in touch with Alberto since then, and he recently tipped us off to his new SETI Project. Following the citizen-science model of the Habitable Exoplanets project, Alberto is looking to recruit amateur radio astronomers willing to turn their antennas in the direction of stars similar to the Sun, where it just might be possible for intelligent life to have formed. Check out the PDF summary of the project which includes the modest technical requirements for getting in on the SETI action.

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Eye-Catching And Crumb-Suspending

Printed circuit boards used to be green or tan, and invariably hidden. Now, they can be artful, structural, and like electronic convention badges, they are the entire project. In this vein, we find Open LEV, a horseshoe-shaped desktop bauble bristling with analog circuitry supporting an acoustic levitator. [John Loefler] is a mechanical engineer manager at a college 3D printing lab in Florida, so of course, he needs to have the nerdiest stuff on his workspace. Instead of resorting to a microcontroller, he filled out a parts list with analog components. We have to assume that the rest of his time went into making his PCB show-room ready. Parts of the silkscreen layer are functional too. If you look closely at where the ultrasonic transducers (silver cylinders) connect, there are depth gauges to aid positioning. Now that’s clever.

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Behold A 3D Display, Thanks To A Speeding Foam Ball

We’ve seen 3D image projection tried in a variety of different ways, but this is a new one to us. This volumetric display by Interact Lab of the University of Sussex creates a 3D image by projecting light onto a tiny foam ball, which zips around in the air fast enough to create a persistence of vision effect. (Video, embedded below.) How is this achieved? With a large array of ultrasonic transducers, performing what researchers call ‘acoustic trapping’.

This is the same principle behind acoustic levitation devices which demonstrate how lightweight objects (like tiny polystyrene foam balls) can be made to defy gravity. But this 3D display is capable of not only moving the object in 3D space, but doing so at a high enough speed and with enough control to produce a persistence of vision effect. The abstract for their (as yet unreleased) paper claims the trapped ball can be moved at speeds of up to several meters per second.

It has a few other tricks up its sleeve, too. The array is capable of simultaneously creating sounds as well as providing a limited form of tactile feedback by letting a user touch areas of high and low air pressure created by the transducers. These areas can’t be the same ones being occupied by the speeding ball, of course, but it’s a neat trick. Check out the video below for a demonstration.
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