Heat flow can levitate ice, glass, seeds, and lint

Macroscopic objects levitate between warm and cold plates in a vacuum chamber. (Credit: Jean Lachat)

Two physics students have shown how to levitate a variety of objects between a warm plate and a cold plate in a vacuum chamber.

They levitated ceramic and polyethylene spheres, glass bubbles, ice particles, lint strands, and thistle seeds.

They achieved a number of levitation breakthroughs, in terms of duration, orientation, and method. The levitation lasted for more than an hour, as opposed to a few minutes; stability was achieved radially and vertically, as opposed to just vertically; and it used a temperature gradient rather than light or a magnetic field. Their findings appear in Applied Physics Letters.

“Magnetic levitation only works on magnetic particles, and optical levitation only works on objects that can be polarized by light, but with our first-of-its-kind method, we demonstrate a method to levitate generic objects,” says Cheng Chin, professor of physics, whose ultracold lab at the University of Chicago was home to the experiments.

How they did it

In the experiment, the bottom copper plate was kept at room temperature while a stainless steel cylinder filled with liquid nitrogen kept at negative 300 degrees Fahrenheit served as the top plate. The upward flow of heat from the warm to the cold plate kept the particles suspended indefinitely.

“The large temperature gradient leads to a force that balances gravity and results in stable levitation,” says Frankie Fung, the study’s lead author. “We managed to quantify the thermophoretic force and found reasonable agreement with what is predicted by theory. This will allow us to explore the possibilities of levitating different types of objects.”

Mykhaylo Usatyuk (left) and Frankie Fung
Mykhaylo Usatyuk (left) and Frankie Fung. (Credit: Jean Lachat)

Thermophoresis refers to the movement of particles by means of a temperature gradient.

“Our increased understanding of the thermophoretic force will help us investigate the interactions and binding affinities between the particles we observed,” says Mykhaylo Usatyuk, a study coauthor. “We are excited about the future research directions we can follow with our system.”

The key to obtaining high levitation stability is the geometrical design of the two plates. A proper ratio of their sizes and vertical spacing allows the warm air to flow around and efficiently capture the levitated objects when they drift away from the center.

Another sensitivity factor is that the thermal gradient needs to be pointing upward—even a misalignment of one degree will greatly reduce the levitation stability.

“Only within a narrow range of pressure, temperature gradient, and plate geometric factors can we reach stable and long levitation,” Chin says. “Different particles also require fine adjustment of the parameters.”

No contamination

The apparatus offers a new ground-based platform to investigate the dynamics of astrophysical, chemical and biological systems in a microgravity environment, according to the researchers.

Levitation of macroscopic particles in a vacuum is of particular interest due to its wide applications in space, atmospheric, and astro-chemical research.

Lasers levitate nanodiamond in free space

And thermophoresis has been utilized in aerosol thermal precipitators, nuclear reactor safety, and the manufacturing of optical fibers through vacuum deposition processes, which apply progressive layers of atoms or molecules during fabrication.

The new method is significant because it offers a new approach to manipulating small objects without contacting or contaminating them, says Thomas Witten, the a professor emeritus of physics. “It offers new avenues for mass assembly of tiny parts for micro-electro-mechanical systems, for example, and to measure small forces within such systems.”

The National Science Foundation, Grainger Foundation, and Enrico Fermi Institute funded the work.

Source: University of Chicago