High efficiency isolation of cells or particles from a heterogeneous mixture is a critical processing step in lab-on-a-chip devices. Acoustic techniques offer contactless and label-free manipulation, preserve viability of biological cells, and provide versatility as the applied electrical signal can be adapted to various scenarios. Conventional acoustic separation methods use time-of-flight and achieve separation up to distances of quarter wavelength with limited separation power due to slow gradients in the force. The method proposed here allows separation by half of the wavelength and can be extended by repeating the modulation pattern and can ensure maximum force acting on the particles. In this work, we propose an optimised phase modulation scheme for particle separation in a surface acoustic wave microfluidic device. An expression for the acoustic radiation force arising from the interaction between acoustic waves in the fluid was derived. We demonstrated, for the first time, that the expression of the acoustic radiation force differs in surface acoustic wave and bulk devices, due to the presence of a geometric scaling factor. Two phase modulation schemes are investigated theoretically and experimentally. Theoretical findings were experimentally validated for different mixtures of polystyrene particles confirming that the method offers high selectivity. A Monte-Carlo simulation enabled us to assess performance in real situations, including the effects of particle size variation and non-uniform acoustic field on sorting efficiency and purity, validating the ability to separate particles with high purity and high resolution.