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  • Single Nanoparticle Detected
Dec 2009
ST. LOUIS, Dec. 21, 2009 -- Nanoparticles can be found just about everywhere these days: in makeup, sunscreen, home pregnancy tests, anti-odor socks, plastic beer bottles, antibacterial doorknobs, and plastic bags for storing vegetables, just to name a few of the 800 or so products on the market. But how safe are they really?

A research group at Washington University aims to assess the impact of nanoparticles on the environment and human health before they are sent to market. As part of this effort, a team led by Lan Yang, PhD, assistant professor of electrical and systems engineering, has devised a sensor on a chip that can not only detect but also measure single particles. They expect the sensor will be able to measure nanoparticles smaller than 100 nm in diameter (about the size of a virus particle) on the fly.

The new device is an improved version of a sensor called a whispering-gallery microresonator.

The Washington University high-Q microresonators could be mass produced by the hundreds of thousands on silicon wafers. Each torus is 20- to 30-µm across, one-tenth the size of the period at the end of this sentence. In this image, two particles (bright spots) have landed on the closest microresonator and are acting as scattering centers that disturb the light waves in the torus. This allows them to be detected and measured. (Images by Jiangang Zhu and Jingyang Gan/WUSTL)

One famous whispering gallery is St. Paul's Cathedral in London. If you stand under the dome close to the wall and speak softly to the wall, someone on the opposite side of the gallery is able to hear what you say. The reason is the sound bounces along the wall of the gallery with very little loss of energy and so can be heard at a great distance.

However, if you speak at normal volume, what you say can no longer be understood. The sound travels around the dome more than once, and the recirculating signal gets mixed up and garbled.

In a miniature version of a whispering gallery, laser light is coupled into a circular waveguide such as a glass ring. When the light strikes the boundary of the ring at a grazing angle it is reflected back into the ring.

The light wave can make many trips around the ring before it is absorbed, but only frequencies of light that fit perfectly into the circumference of the ring can do so. If the circumference is a whole number of wavelengths, the light waves superimpose perfectly each trip around.

This perfect match between the frequency and the circumference is called a resonance, or whispering-gallery mode.

The glass resonator can serve as a particle detector because the faint outer edge of the light wave, called its "evanescent tail," penetrates the ring's surface, probing the surroundings. So when a particle attaches to the ring, it disturbs the light wave, changing the resonant frequency. This change can be used to measure the size of the particle.

There are two problems with these microresonators, said Yang. One is that they are finicky. Lots of things can shift the resonant frequency, including vibration or temperature changes.

The other is that the frequency shift depends on where the particle lands on the ring. A particle that happens to land on a node (the dark blue areas reflected on the base of the pedestal in the accompanying image) will disturb the light wave less and appear smaller than a particle of the same size that happens to land on an anti-node (the red spots visible on the base).

For this reason the frequency shift is not a reliable measure of particle size.

The ultrahigh-Q microresonator

The way around these problems is a self-referring sensing scheme possible only in an exceptionally good resonator, one with virtually no optical flaws.

Yang's lab uses surface tension to achieve the necessary perfection. The microresonators are etched out of glass layers on silicon wafers by techniques borrowed from the integrated circuit industry. These techniques allow the rings to be mass produced but leave them with rough surfaces.

In a crucial finishing step, the microresonators are reheated with a pulsed laser until the glass reflows. Surface tension then pulls the rings into smooth toruses.

"Nature helps us create the perfect structure," Yang said.

"This quality factor gives the sensor a resonance as beautiful as the pure tone form the finest musical instrument," said Jiangang Zhu, a graduate student in Yang's lab.

The Q value, or quality factor, of the reflowed resonators, a measure of microscopic imperfections that sap energy from the resonating mode, is about 100 million, meaning that light circles the ring many times. Because recirculation dramatically increases the interaction of the light wave and particles on the ring's surface, a different approach to particle detection is possible: mode splitting.

Particles that alight on the resonator disturb a light wave circulating in the torus (whose nodes and anti-nodes are visible on the torus's base) and these disturbances provide information about the particle's size. The pink line receding into the distance is an optical fiber through which light is coupled into and out of the torus.

Each whispering-gallery mode is actually two modes: the light travels both clockwise and counterclockwise around the resonator. These modes are usually "degenerate," meaning they have the same frequency.

When a particle lands on a resonator, it acts as a scattering center that couples energy between the modes. The two modes rearrange themselves so that the particle lies on a node of one and an antinode of the other. As a result, one wave is much more perturbed than the other, and this lifts the degeneracy, or splits the mode.

In a low-Q resonator, the split mode can't be resolved. But in the high-Q resonator it is easily seen.

A sensor that relies on mode splitting is much less finicky than a frequency-shifting sensor. Because the clockwise and counterclockwise light waves share the same resonator, they share the same noise. Any jitter or jiggle that biases one biases the other by the same amount. Because it is self-referring, the sensor is more accurate and reliable.

Mode splitting also solves the particle location problem. The light scattering that perturbs the mode also broadens it. The mode split still varies with the location of the particle, but the ratio of the mode split and the difference between the linewidths (the breadth) of the two modes depends only on the particle's size.

To test the sensor, Daren Chen, PhD, associate professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering, helped the team generate nanoparticles within specific size ranges. In experiments with nanoparticles of salt or nanospheres of plastic, the resonator's size estimates were within one or two percent of the actual values.

"Size is a key parameter that significantly affects the physical and chemical properties of nanoparticles," said Yang. "It plays a crucial role in the applications of nanoparticles both in science and in industry, all of which will benefit from the ability to measure these particles accurately."

The work is partially supported by the McDonnell Academy Global Energy and Environment Partnership and the Center for Materials Innovation at Washington University. It is described in a Dec. 13 advanced online publication of Nature Photonics.

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Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
1. The characteristic of how light propagates through a waveguide that can be designated by a radiation pattern in a plane transverse to the direction of travel. 2. The state of an oscillating system such as a laser that corresponds to both a particular field pattern the system generates as well as one of the possible resonant frequencies of the system. In a laser system, the field pattern produced as described above is referred to as a transverse mode and takes the common name(s) Gaussian,...
A small object that behaves as a whole unit or entity in terms of it’s transport and it’s properties, as opposed to an individual molecule which on it’s own is not considered a nanoparticle.. Nanoparticles range between 100 and 2500 nanometers in diameter.  
The use of atoms, molecules and molecular-scale structures to enhance existing technology and develop new materials and devices. The goal of this technology is to manipulate atomic and molecular particles to create devices that are thousands of times smaller and faster than those of the current microtechnologies.
Pertaining to optics and the phenomena of light.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
A volume, bounded at least in part by highly reflecting surfaces, in which light of particularly discrete frequencies can set up standing wave modes of low loss. Often, in laser work,the resonator contains two facing mirrors that may either be flat (Fabry-Perot resonator) or have some spherical curvature, which together bind the lasing material that is referred to as the gain medium, and hence the optical cavity of a laser is where lasing occurs.  
Change of the spatial distribution of a beam of radiation when it interacts with a surface or a heterogeneous medium, in which process there is no change of wavelength of the radiation.
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