News

Nanoparticles bound by light

09.11.2022 - Tunable interaction between optically levitated glass nanoparticles.

A team of researchers at the University of Vienna, the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the University of Duisburg-Essen have found a new mechanism that funda­mentally alters the interaction between optically levitated nano­particles. Their experiment demons­trates previously unattainable levels of control over the coupling in arrays of particles, thereby creating a new platform to study complex physical phenomena.

Imagine dust particles randomly floating around in the room. When a laser is switched on the particles will experience forces of light and once a particle comes too close it will be trapped in the focus of the beam. This is the basis of Arthur Ashkin’s pioneering Nobel prize work of optical tweezers. When two or more particles are in the vicinity, light can be reflected back and forth between them to form standing waves of light, in which the particles self-align like a crystal of particles bound by light. This optical binding has been known and studied for more than 30 years.

It came as quite a surprise to the researchers in Vienna when they saw a completely different behavior than was expected when studying forces between two glass nano­particles. Not only could they change the strength and the sign of the binding force, but they could even see one particle, say the left, acting on the other, the right, without the right acting back on the left. What seems like a violation of Newton’s third law is non-reci­procal behavior and occurs in situa­tions in which a system can lose energy to its environment, in this case the laser. Something was obviously missing from our current theory of optical binding. The secret trick behind this new behavior is coherent scattering. When laser light hits a nano­particle, the matter inside the particle becomes polarized and follows the oscillations of the light’s electro­magnetic wave. As a consequence, all light that is scattered from the particle oscil­lates in phase with the incoming laser. Waves that are in phase can be made to interfere. Recently, the Vienna researchers used this inter­ference effect provided by coherent scattering to cool for the first time a single nano­particle at room temperature to its quantum ground state of motion. 

When Uroš Delić, a senior researcher in the group of Markus Aspelmeyer at the University of Vienna, started applying coherent scattering to two particles, he realized that additional inter­ference effects occur. “Light that is scattered from one particle can interfere with the light that traps the other particle”, Delić explains. “If the phase between these light fields can be tuned, so can the strength and character of the forces between the particles.” For one set of phases, one recovers the well-known optical binding. For other phases, however, previously unobserved effects occur such as non-reciprocal forces. “It turns out that previous theories did neither take into account coherent scattering nor the fact that photons also get lost. When you add these two processes you get much richer inter­actions than have thought possible”, says Benjamin Stickler, a team member from Germany working on the refined theoretical description: “…and past experiments were not sensitive to these effects either.”

The Vienna team wanted to change that and set out to explore these new light-induced forces in an experiment. To achieve this, they used one laser to generate two optical beams, each one trapping a single glass nanoparticle of about 200 nm in size. In their experiment they were able to change not only the distance and intensity of the trap beams but also the relative phase between them. Each particle’s position oscillates at the frequency given by the trap and can be monitored with high precision in the experiment. Since every force on the trapped particle changes this frequency, it is possible to monitor the forces between them while phase and distance are being changed. To make sure that the forces are induced by light and not by the gas between the particles, the experiment was performed in vacuum. In that way they could confirm the presence of the new light-induced forces between the trapped particles. “The couplings that we see are more than 10 times larger than expected from conven­tional optical binding”, says PhD student Jakob Rieser. “And we see clear signatures from non-reci­procal forces when we change the laser phases, all as predicted from our new model.”

The researchers believe that their insights will lead to new ways of studying complex phenomena in multiparticle systems. “The way to understand what is going on in genuinely complex systems is typically to study model systems with well-controlled inter­actions.” says Uroš Delić. “The really fascinating thing here is that we have found a completely new toolbox for controlling inter­actions in arrays of levi­tated particles.” The researchers draw some of their inspiration also from atomic physics where, many years ago, the ability to control inter­actions between atoms in optical lattices basically started the field of quantum simu­lators. “Being able to apply this now on the level of solid-state systems could be a similar game changer.” (Source: U. Vienna)

Reference: J. Rieser et al.: Tunable light-induced dipole-dipole interaction between optically levitated nanoparticles, Science 377, 987 (2022); DOI: 10.1126/science.abp9941

Link: Vienna Center for Quantum Science and Technology (VCQ), University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria

Welding with Civan's Ultrafast CBC-Laser: Basics, Opportunities and Challenges

The first part of the webinar will provide an overview of the fundamentals and challenges of the welding process and the features of the CIVAN CBC laser. The second part of the webinar will discuss approaches to take advantage of fast, arbitrary beam shaping to control process problems.

Register now

Digital tools or software can ease your life as a photonics professional by either helping you with your system design or during the manufacturing process or when purchasing components. Check out our compilation:

Proceed to our dossier

Welding with Civan's Ultrafast CBC-Laser: Basics, Opportunities and Challenges

The first part of the webinar will provide an overview of the fundamentals and challenges of the welding process and the features of the CIVAN CBC laser. The second part of the webinar will discuss approaches to take advantage of fast, arbitrary beam shaping to control process problems.

Register now

Digital tools or software can ease your life as a photonics professional by either helping you with your system design or during the manufacturing process or when purchasing components. Check out our compilation:

Proceed to our dossier