1. ITV Report

Scientists create water 'tractor beam' that could be used to control ships

Scientists have created a 'tractor beam' that could control ships and help tackle oil spills with a new and radical technique that manipulates floating objects.

Scientists can control the flow of water. Credit: Australian National University

Led by Professor Michael Shats, the group have discovered they can control water flow patterns with simple wave generators, enabling them to move floating objects at will.

We have figured out a way of creating waves that can force a floating object to move against the direction of the wave. No one could have guessed this result.

– Dr Horst Punzmann, from the Research School of Physics and Engineering, who led the project.

The technique resembles sci-fi tractor beams that draw in objects and allows scientists to control things in water in a way they have never been able to before.

The group worked out the size and frequency of the waves required to move a ping-pong ball in a wave tank in whichever direction they wanted to.

We found that above a certain height, these complex three-dimensional waves generate flow patterns on the surface of the water. The tractor beam is just one of the patterns, they can be inward flows, outward flows or vortices.

– Team member Professor Shats
The technique can be reproduced in the bathtub. Credit: Australian National University

Using "advanced particle" tracking, the team found that the waves generate currents on the surface of the water.

It’s one of the great unresolved problems, yet anyone in the bathtub can reproduce it. We were very surprised no one had described it before

– Dr Punzmann

Dr Punzmann said anyone in a bathtub could reproduce they effect, though as yet as yet no mathematical theory can explain these experiments