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A team of physicists at Scotland's Dundee University has turned science fiction into science fact by creating the first functioning acoustic tractor beam.

Until now tractor beams - devices with the ability to attract one object to another from a distance - have only featured in science fiction films, plausible only in the other worlds, planets and galaxies featured in the likes of Star Trek and Star Wars.

Working with colleagues at Southampton University and Illinois Wesleyan University, researchers from Dundee University have used energy from an ultrasound array to exert force behind an object and pull it towards the energy source.

Dr Christine Demore, from the Institute for Medical Science and Technology at Dundee, said: "This is the first time anyone has demonstrated a working acoustic tractor beam and the first time such a beam has been used to move anything bigger than microscopic targets.

"We were able to show that you could exert sufficient force on an object around one centimetre in size to hold or move it, by directing twin beams of energy from the ultrasound array towards the back of the object."

Dr Demore said that far from being just confined to the realms of science fiction, the technology has significant potential in medicine by targeting and attracting individual cells.

"Our research could lead to big advances in the application of ultrasound-based techniques in sectors such as healthcare," she said.

The researchers, together with Dr Gabe Spalding at Illinois Wesleyan University, have previously demonstrated that another piece of sci-fi technology, Doctor Who's sonic screwdriver, could also be created using a similar ultrasound array.

The team's work is part of a £3.6 million programme combining expertise at four UK universities — Dundee, Glasgow, Southampton and Bristol — and industrial partners. The results have been published in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters.

Professor Sandy Cochran of the University of Dundee said: "Our partnership with industry has been vital to developing devices and capabilities that are delivering unprecedented sophistication in the field of ultrasound."