The fact that J.K. Rowling's vivid imagination conveyed so brilliantly in the Harry Potter series of books has been a big hit with kids and adults all over the world, is a well-known fact. But what is not as well publicized is the effect it has had on inspiring scientists. First there is the ongoing quest to create an invisibility cloak and now, levitating water droplets!
However, the amazing feat achieved by a team of researchers led by physicist Chris Benmore at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, does not use spells or wands to get the water droplets to float around in the air. Instead, it does its magic with the help of soundwaves.
In order to try suspend the water in thin air, the team began with an acoustic levitator. Developed by NASA to mimic microgravity conditions, the device comprises of two small speakers that sit atop each other and are used to generate soundwaves of about 22 kilohertz or slightly above the audible range for humans.
When the frequencies are aligned correctly, they create two sets of soundwaves that perfectly interfere with each other and produce what scientists refer to as a standing wave. The pressure caused by these two counteracting waves is so high that it cancels the effect of gravity, allowing very light objects like water to levitate if, placed precisely at the right point within the wave.
Though it may appear that the scientists were simply trying to outdo the young wizard, their reason for creating the levitating liquid is for a much bigger purpose - To help pharmaceutical companies make more effective drugs with fewer side effects.
Medicine can be divided into two categories - Amorphous or crystalline. The former are preferable because they have a higher bioavailability, which means that the body is able to absorb them faster and hence requires a smaller dose. However, they are also very difficult to produce. That's because as soon as the pharmaceutical liquid solution touches the bottom of the container it is placed in, it tends to solidify into a crystalline state, which happens to be hard and more difficult for the body to absorb. This however is almost impossible to avoid and is the reason that most current pills contain more medicine than is necessary or good for the patient.
If the pharmacists can start levitating their solutions, they will not touch any solid material allowing the water to evaporate gradually and solidify the medicine into a coveted amorphous drug.
Of course, this current method allows for only very small amounts of drugs to be produced. However, the scientists who are already talking to drug manufacturers, are hoping that with further research and improvement in technique, making drugs by levitating liquids 'Harry Potter' style, may become a reality!