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Sonic screwdriver may become fact rather than fiction


December 7, 2010

Sonic screwdrivers may soon be more than props at Doctor Who conventions (Image: R. Steven Rainwater via wikipedia)

Sonic screwdrivers may soon be more than props at Doctor Who conventions (Image: R. Steven Rainwater via wikipedia)

The sonic screwdriver has proven an indispensable piece of equipment for Doctor Who when battling Daleks, Cybermen and the Master. The fictional tool is capable of opening just about any lock known to man - or alien - and can fix a damaged TARDIS in a matter of seconds. Now engineers at Bristol University say a real-life version of the sci-fi screwdriver could be created that would use sonic technology to open locks and undo screws ... just don't expect to see one under the Christmas tree this year.

According to Professor of Ultrasonics at Bristol University, Bruce Drinkwater, the secret lies in ultrasonic waves that can be used to apply forces to objects. Such technology is already being trialed in modern manufacturing to fix parts together and ultrasonic force fields are being developed for use in the medical field to separate diseased cells from healthy ones.

Professor Drinkwater and a team from The Big Bang: UK Young Scientists & Engineers Fair are now exploring whether super powerful versions of these sound beams can be used to create a real-life sonic screwdriver.

"Doctor Who is renowned for bending the rules of science. But technology has radically moved on since the Doc first stepped out of his TARDIS in the sixties. Whilst a fully functioning time machine may still be light years away, engineers are already experimenting with ultrasonic waves to move and manipulate small objects," said Professor Drinkwater.

The engineers are looking into how ultrasonic waves can be spun at high speed to create a twisting force similar to a miniature tornado, which could be used to undo screws remotely. They have also experimented with rotating ultrasonic force fields, which would act like the head of a real screwdriver.

While a real-world sonic screwdriver is likely some way off, Professor Drinkwater is hopeful.

"The sonic screwdriver may still be sometime in the making but ultrasonic technology is already making its mark in the medical and manufacturing arenas with some exciting results."

Until then he's happy enough to inspire the engineers, technologists and inventors of the future.

"Doctor Who's adventures have captured the imaginations of millions, young and old. And, however far fetched the Time Lord's encounters may seem, there are engineers and scientists out there who are using their skills to bring the magic to life."

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

\"Whilst a fully functioning time machine may still be light years away, \"

funny... since the nearest functioning time machine IS actually a few light years away (distance wise) but how did they KNOW this to write the article?

David Larson

Light years? Really? I hope he knows that light-years are a measure of distance, not time. Perhaps some alien race has invented time travel, thus making the statement correct, but most likely humans will have to figure this one out for ourselves.

It\'s a good idea though, and would be a boon for all of those frustrating times that the head breaks off of an old screw. It could also be good for tamper resistant parts.

Charles Bosse

Awesome, I want one now. NOW!

Ronny Jernigan

This wouldn\'t be too difficult to do, actually.

Michael Bennett II

lol that\'s pretty funny. This screw driver would have to be pretty precise I say to be useful...

Kirill Belousov

Actually, I\'m surprised nobody has made a sonic screwdriver of sorts already. Canon has been using ultrasonic motors in its lenses for decades. Not quite as high-tech as rotating screws without contact, but a USM screwdriver could be quieter than one using an electromagnetic motor, although it may still generate noise since it doesn\'t generate much torque and would need gears to step that up.

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