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Levitation in Miniature

Levitation in Miniature

By Hannah Welham

If you thought levitation was a phenomenon reserved for David Blaine (or Copperfield if you can remember that far back), think again. Scientists at the University of St Andrews made history this week when they announced that they had achieved ‘incredible levitation effects’ in the field of nanotechnology – the science of tiny stuff.

Ulf Leonhardt and Thomas Philbin thought outside the (presumably somewhat small) box to find a way to overcome friction between nano particles. Now when these physicists say ‘friction’ they don’t just mean a bit of rubbing each other up the wrong way. No, the term’s correct use here is to describe the way that the particles become stuck together by what are called ‘Casimir quantum forces’.

Luckily, Professor Leonhardt was on hand to enlighten dazed press people: “The Casimir force is the ultimate cause of friction in the nano-world, in particular in some microelectromechanical systems… Micro or nano machines could run smoother and with less or no friction at all if one can manipulate the force.”

So where does levitation come into it? Well, Leonhardt and Philbin realised that in order to stop the frictional problems, the Casimir forces simply need to be reversed. Using lenses, the force is effectively flipped over, so instead of being attractive the nano particles levitate at a distance from one another.

Despite the breakthrough, however, Leonbhardt remains sceptical as to the potential for levitation in everyday life. “At the moment, in practice it is only going to be possible for micro-objects with the current technology, since this quantum force is small and acts only at short ranges. For now, human levitation remains the subject of cartoons, fairytales and tales of the paranormal.” Oh well, float back to your seats for now everyone.

Check out Hannah's homepage for more top science.

Or try these for size:

- Cool - Teleportation research
- Interesting - Nanotechnology explained
- Straight - Electricity without wires
- Silly - Hope for nano computers

Image: Dez Pain

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17 Jul 2011
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