'Next-generation' optical tweezers trap tightly without overheating (w/ video)

Sep 26, 2011 By Caroline Perry
The optical table in the Crozier lab at Harvard SEAS.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Engineers at Harvard have created a device that may make it easier to isolate and study tiny particles such as viruses.

Their plasmonic nanotweezers, revealed this month in Nature Communications, use light from a laser to trap nanoscale particles. The new device creates strong forces more efficiently than traditional and eliminates a problem that caused earlier setups to overheat.

“We can get beyond the limitations of conventional optical tweezers, exerting a larger force on a nanoparticle for the same laser power,” says principal investigator Ken Crozier, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

“Until now, overheating has been a major problem with tweezers based on surface plasmons. What we’ve shown is that you can get beyond that limitation by building a plasmonic nanotweezer with an integrated heat sink.”

Optical tweezers have been an essential tool in biophysics for several decades, often used for studying cellular components such as molecular motors. Researchers can trap and manipulate the proteins that whip a flagellum, for example, and measure the force of its swimming motion.

But optical tweezers have drawbacks and limits, so researchers like Crozier are perfecting what might be called the “next-generation” model: plasmonic nanotweezers.

To create conventional optical tweezers, which were invented at Bell Labs in the 1980s, scientists shine a laser through a microscope lens, which focuses it into a very tight spot. The light, which is made up of electromagnetic waves, creates a gradient force at that focused spot that can attract a tiny particle and hold it within the beam for a short period of time—until random motion, radiation pressure, or other forces knock it out.

'Next-generation' optical tweezers trap tightly without overheating
A false-color SEM image of the gold nano-pillars. Underneath the flat gold surface is a layer of copper, and both metals have been evaporated onto a sheet of silicon. The top surface, with the pillars, is created through a process called template stripping, which makes it very smooth. The scale bar is one micrometer. Image courtesy of Ken Crozier.

The trouble with these optical tweezers is that a lens cannot focus the beam any smaller than half the wavelength of the light. If the targeted particle is much smaller than the focal spot, the trapping will be imprecise.

At the same time, the focal size limit places an upper limit on the gradient force that can be generated. A stronger force is necessary for trapping nanoscale particles, relative to larger, microscopic particles, so conventional optical tweezers must use a very high-powered laser to trap the tiniest targets.

To overcome these problems, researchers in applied physics discovered a few years ago that they could enhance the trapping field by focusing the laser onto an array of nanoscale gold disks. The light excites the electrons at the surface of the metal, creating rapid waves of electromagnetic charge called plasma oscillations, resulting in “hot spots” of enhanced fields around the edges of the disk.

In other researchers' designs, the tiny gold disks were arrayed on a sheet of glass, and the whole setup was submerged in water with the target particles. In tests with those devices, one problem was that the brightest hotspots were at the base of the pillars, partially inside the glass, where the particles could never be trapped. A bigger problem, as Crozier's team discovered, was that unless they kept the laser power very low, the water boiled.

The Harvard team has solved both problems by replacing the glass with a piece of silicon coated in copper and then gold, with raised gold pillars. These materials are much more thermally conductive than glass, so they act as a heat sink.

'Next-generation' optical tweezers trap tightly without overheating
Particle trapping and rotation in action. Image courtesy of Ken Crozier.

"The gold, copper, and silicon under the pillars act just like the heat sink attached to the chip in your PC, drawing the heat away," says lead author Kai Wang (Ph.D. '11), who completed the work at SEAS and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The new device reduces the water heating by about 100-fold and produces hotspots at the top edges of the pillars, where Crozier's team was able to trap polystyrene balls as small as 110 nanometers.

In an unusual twist, the team discovered that they were able to rotate the trapped particles around the pillars by rotating the linear polarizer on the optical table where they conducted the experiments. Going further, they replaced the linear polarizer with a circular one and found that the particle automatically and continuously traveled around the pillar.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Using plasmonic nanotweezers without an integrated heat sink is problematic because, unless the laser power is kept very low, the water boils, creating a bubble that disrupts the trapping.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
The Crozier lab traps a 110-nanometer polystyrene sphere and rotates it around the gold pillar by manually rotating the linear polarizer.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
The Crozier lab traps two polystyrene spheres (200 nm each) and rotates them around the gold pillar. At ~32 seconds, they turn off the laser, and the two spheres escape.

As the electromagnetic field circled the pillar, it created an optical force that pushed the particle. Interestingly, despite the fact that the electromagnetic field traveled at about 1014 rotations per second, the balance between the optical force and the fluid drag resulted in a particle velocity of about 5 rotations per second, effectively a terminal velocity.

"This phenomenon seems to be entirely novel," says Crozier. "People have trapped particles before, but they've never done anything like that."

As tools for trapping and manipulating nanoparticles become more advanced, the potential applications in biophysics are extensive. One remaining challenge, however, is the researchers' ability to detect and quantify the motion of such .

"It's going to be harder and harder to precisely track the center of the particle when we do these manipulations," says Crozier. "Progress in the realm of sensing tools will need to keep up."

Explore further: Cold Atom Laboratory creates atomic dance

Provided by Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

5 /5 (2 votes)

Related Stories

Controlled heating of gold nanoparticles

Jan 17, 2011

Tiny gold particles are good for transferring heat and could be a promising tool for creating localized heating in, for example, a living cell. In new experiments, German researchers at the Niels Bohr Institute ...

Tractor beams come to life

Sep 08, 2010

Tractor beams, energy rays that can move objects, are a science fiction mainstay. But now they are becoming a reality -- at least for moving very tiny objects.

Recommended for you

Backpack physics: Smaller hikers carry heavier loads

4 hours ago

Hikers are generally advised that the weight of the packs they carry should correspond to their own size, with smaller individuals carrying lighter loads. Although petite backpackers might appreciate the ...

Extremely high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging

4 hours ago

For the first time, researchers have succeeded to detect a single hydrogen atom using magnetic resonance imaging, which signifies a huge increase in the technology's spatial resolution. In the future, single-atom ...

'Attosecond' science breakthrough

5 hours ago

Scientists from Queen's University Belfast have been involved in a groundbreaking discovery in the area of experimental physics that has implications for understanding how radiotherapy kills cancer cells, among other things.

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Sep 26, 2011
Very cool research, but, I wonder why they'd use plain 'ol water for cooling ? Why not some sort of cryrogenic cooling as opposed to their solution of heatsink materials applied with metal deposition ?

not rated yet Sep 26, 2011
Last video seems out of focus...
but anyway, i'd be interested to see results with aperiodic gold pillars, or pillars with a radially increasing density arangement. And I wonder the advantages of polystyrene (charged statically?) with an innately charged particle, like some kind of biomolecule or protein bonded to an ion. Also I think water was used, because in order to have bio-applications, the system has to work in a water environment.
not rated yet Sep 27, 2011
Very cool research, but, I wonder why they'd use plain 'ol water for cooling ? Why not some sort of cryrogenic cooling as opposed to their solution of heatsink materials applied with metal deposition ?

I use optical tweezers on a daily basis for my research. The reason is simple, these tools are often used for biological research, to study proteins and DNA. You need to do these experiments in water, for obvious reasons.