The University of Texas at Austin has developed “nanotweezers” that handle nanoparticles with the help of light. These nanotweezers could be used in nanotechnology as well as in health monitoring.
Yuebing Zheng, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, wanted to create a tool that could help humans manipulate nanoscale objects at will, so he created the nanotweezers. The new tool was built off of a few years of research from Zheng and his team from the Cockrell School of Engineering. The team hopes that opto-thermoelectric nanotweezers (OTENT) will lead to a further understanding of and advancements in nanophotonics.
"Until now, we simply did not know how to manipulate nanoparticles using optical heating," Zheng said. "With our nanotweezers, we can not only control particles at the nanoscale, we can also analyze the particles and control the coupling in-situ."
Zheng worked with Brian Korgel, chemical engineering professor at UT Austin, to demonstrate potential applications for the nanotweezers.
"This project was really interesting for me," Korgel said. "It was led by a group in mechanical engineering who had discovered a way to manipulate individual nanoparticles and nanowires. Their expertise was in building the photonics machines but not in making the materials to use for the experiments. So, my group developed the synthesis of the nanowires used in the study. It was a great collaboration."
Nanophotonics, nanochemistry and nanophysics research all came together to create a way to manipulate and analyze nanoparticles. The nanotweezers are key to this development. With the nanotweezers, light is used at a nanoscale just like the tweezers that we use today.
The nanotweezers can be used with metal, semiconductor, polymer and dielectric nanostructures with charged or hydrophobic surfaces. So far, they have trapped silicon nanospheres, silica beads, polystyrene beads, silicon nanowires, germanium nanowires and metal nanostructures with the new tweezers.
The team believes that the tweezers could potentially be perfect for engineers who are studying live cell manipulation and cell-to-cell communication.
"Optimization of the current system to make it bio-compatible is the next step of our project," Zheng said. "We expect to use our tweezers to manipulate biological cells and molecules at single-molecule resolution, to control drug release and to study the cell-cell interaction. The manipulation and analysis of biological objects will open a new door to early disease diagnosis and the discovery of nanomedicine."
The nanotweezers could be commercialized so much that they could even be used in a smartphone app.
"That's what we hope," Zheng said. "We also see great opportunities in outreach education, perhaps for students who want to see what a cell really looks like. In addition, it could be used to assess how healthy one's immune system is functioning. It has the potential to be an important mobile diagnostic tool, giving people more autonomy over their own health care."
The paper on this research was published in Nature Photonics.