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June 22nd, 2011
Now a team of researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York has demonstrated another trick light can do. Take a transparent rod, semicircular in cross-section and thinner than a human hair, and direct a beam at it. As the stream of photons flows through it, the pressure they exert first rotates it until it finds equilibrium and then pushes it, not in the direction of the stream but at a particular angle to it. It's not unlike the way the flow of air round an aerofoil creates 'lift'.
Tiny as this effect is, such a 'lightfoil' could have applications not only in the near-vacuum of space but even on Earth. "The advantage of these rods", explains Ortwin Hess, Professor in Physics and Leverhulme Chair in Metamaterials at Imperial College London, "is that you can use a lot of them together." And on the nano scale, he adds, even very small effects can have a gigantic impact.
So what is it good for? The pressure light exerts is minuscule, and so there are only two contexts in which it can be harnessed: in space, where there is a near-total vacuum and therefore almost no resistance to the force it applies; and in nanotechnology, where the things that need moving have a very small mass.
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