To grasp and move microscopic objects, such as bacteria and the components of living cells, scientists can harness the power of concentrated light to manipulate them without ever physically touching them. Now, doctoral student Amr Saleh and Assistant Professor Jennifer Dionne, researchers at the Stanford School of Engineering, have designed an innovative light aperture that allows them to optically trap smaller objects than ever before — potentially just a few atoms in size.
The process of optical trapping — or optical tweezing, as it is often known — involves sculpting a beam of light into a narrow point that produces a strong electromagnetic field. The beam attracts tiny objects and traps them in place, just like a pair of tweezers.
Unfortunately, there are natural limits to the technique. The process breaks down for objects significantly smaller than the wavelength of light. Therefore, optical tweezers cannot grasp super-small objects like individual proteins, which are only a couple of nanometers in diameter.
Saleh and Dionne have shown theoretically that light passed through their novel aperture would stably trap objects as small as 2 nanometers. Saleh is now building a working prototype of the microscopic device.
Dionne says that the most promising method of moving tiny particles with light relies on plasmonics, a technology that takes advantage of the optical and electronic properties of metals. A strong conductor like silver or gold holds its electrons weakly, giving them freedom to move around near the metal’s surface.
When light waves interact with these mobile electrons, they move in what Dionne describes as “a very well-defined, intricate dance,” scattering and sculpting the light into electromagnetic waves called plasmon-polaritons. These oscillations have a very short wavelength compared to visible light, enabling them to trap small specimens more tightly.
Dionne and Saleh applied plasmonic principles to design a new aperture that focuses light more effectively. The aperture is structured much like the coaxial cables that transmit television signals, Saleh said. A nanoscale tube of silver is coated in a thin layer of silicon dioxide, and those two layers are wrapped in a second outer layer of silver. When light shines through the silicon dioxide ring, it creates plasmons at the interface where the silver and silicon dioxide meet. The plasmons travel along aperture and emerge on the other end as a powerful, concentrated beam of light.
The Stanford device is not the first plasmonic trap, but it promises to trap the smallest specimens recorded to date. Saleh and Dionne have theoretically shown that their design can trap particles as small as 2 nanometers. With further improvements, their design could even be used to optically trap molecules even smaller.
Dionne said she would first like to trap a single protein, and try to unravel its twisted structure using visible light alone. Dionne points out that the beam of light could also be used to exert a strong pulling force on stem cells, which has been shown to change how the these important building blocks differentiate into various kinds of cells. Saleh, on the other hand, is particularly excited about moving and stacking tiny particles to explore their attractive forces and create new, “bottom-up” materials and devices.