Scientists Levitate Tiny Plastic Plate Using Just Light

The Disney-like breakthrough could further our understanding of Mars' atmosphere.
Derya Ozdemir
3D rendering of levitating discsNeoLeo/iStock

Using the energy from a set of LEDs in a vacuum chamber, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have managed to get two small plastic plates to hover using nothing but light, Wired reports.

While scientists have previously used the same physical phenomenon to float invisible aerosols in microfluidic devices, an object big enough to grasp was never moved before, making the study, published in Science Advances, a breakthrough.

Science tries its hand at developing a 'magic carpet'

The researchers were able to have the Mylar plates, each as wide as a pencil’s diameter, hovering by using nothing but the energy from the light below. The hovering happens thanks to the energy from the LEDs heating up the Mylar's specially coated underbelly. This energizes the air particles under the plastic and thrusts the plates away with a slight wind. 

The "magic carpet" might sound rather abstract; however, this technology could actually be utilized to learn more about the mesosphere. Lying between 50 and 85 kilometers (31 and 53 miles) above our heads, this high-up region of the atmosphere is pretty difficult to study since we don't have access to it. This is a bit of a nuisance since the pressure in Mars' atmosphere is similar to Earth’s mesosphere, implying that studying our mesosphere could help us develop technologies for Mars.

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With the first instance of stable photophoretic flight achieved, the researchers are also armed with an accompanying theoretical model that can simulate how different flying plates would behave in the atmosphere. Utilizing these technologies, the researchers now considering developing a flight system that can take small sensors into the mesosphere by using this light-powered hovering technology. 

The current model indicates that a hovering plate could carry 80 kilometers (50 miles) overhead while equipped with a sensor-sized load; however, the idea is rather in its starting stages. The researchers state that there are many meteorological challenges that need to be overcome before such technologies could be deployed.