Although scientists have been able to levitate specific types of material, a pair of UChicago undergraduate physics students helped take the science to a new level.
Third-year Frankie Fung and fourth-year Mykhaylo Usatyuk led a team of UChicago researchers who demonstrated how to levitate a variety of objects—ceramic and polyethylene spheres, glass bubbles, ice particles, lint strands and thistle seeds—between a warm plate and a cold plate in a vacuum chamber.
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," said 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." (Thermophoresis refers to the movement of particles by means of a temperature gradient.)