Nanoscale Patterning of Light Manipulates Macroscale Objects

Facebook X LinkedIn Email
PASADENA, Calif., March 21, 2019 — By creating a distinct nanoscale patterning on the surface of an object, researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have designed a way to levitate and propel objects using only light.

The patterning interacts with light in such a way that the object can right itself when perturbed, creating a restoring torque to keep it in the light beam. Rather than requiring highly focused laser beams, the researchers designed the patterning of the object as a way to “encode” stability into the object. Self-stabilizing optical manipulation of objects — which can be millimeter, centimeter, and even meter in scale — is achieved by controlling the anisotropy of light scattering along the object’s surface. According to the researchers, the light source can be millions of miles away. 

Manipulating, levitating objects with only light, Caltech.
Conceptual illustration of a nano-patterned object reorienting itself to remain in a beam of light. Courtesy of the Atwater laboratory.

In a scalable design that features silicon resonators on silica substrate, the researchers identified nanophotonic structures that can self-stabilize when rotated and/or translated relative to the optical axis. By engineering the scattered phase, the researchers achieved nanoscale control of scattering across a large area, creating restoring behavior in the object, without the need to focus incident light or excessively constrain the shape, size, or material composition of the object.

Although still theoretical, the work could lead to platforms for manipulating macroscopic objects, with applications ranging from contactless wafer-scale fabrication and assembly, to trajectory control for ultralight spacecraft and even laser-propelled light sails for space exploration.

“We have come up with a method that could levitate macroscopic objects,” said professor Harry Atwater. “There is an audaciously interesting application to use this technique as a means for propulsion of a new generation of spacecraft. We’re a long way from actually doing that, but we are in the process of testing out the principles.”

In theory, this spacecraft could be patterned with nanoscale structures and accelerated by Earth-based laser light. Without needing to carry fuel, the spacecraft could reach very high, even relativistic, speeds and possibly travel to other stars.

Atwater also envisions that the technology could be used on Earth to enable rapid manufacturing of ever-smaller objects, like circuit boards.

The research was published in Nature Photonics ( 

Published: March 2019
Nanopositioning refers to the precise and controlled movement or manipulation of objects or components at the nanometer scale. This technology enables the positioning of objects with extremely high accuracy and resolution, typically in the range of nanometers or even sub-nanometer levels. Nanopositioning systems are employed in various scientific, industrial, and research applications where ultra-precise positioning is required. Key features and aspects of nanopositioning include: Small...
An SI prefix meaning one billionth (10-9). Nano can also be used to indicate the study of atoms, molecules and other structures and particles on the nanometer scale. Nano-optics (also referred to as nanophotonics), for example, is the study of how light and light-matter interactions behave on the nanometer scale. See nanophotonics.
Nanophotonics is a branch of science and technology that explores the behavior of light on the nanometer scale, typically at dimensions smaller than the wavelength of light. It involves the study and manipulation of light using nanoscale structures and materials, often at dimensions comparable to or smaller than the wavelength of the light being manipulated. Aspects and applications of nanophotonics include: Nanoscale optical components: Nanophotonics involves the design and fabrication of...
optical tweezers
Optical tweezers refer to a scientific instrument that uses the pressure of laser light to trap and manipulate microscopic objects, such as particles or biological cells, in three dimensions. This technique relies on the momentum transfer of photons from the laser beam to the trapped objects, creating a stable trapping potential. Optical tweezers are widely used in physics, biology, and nanotechnology for studying and manipulating tiny structures at the microscale and nanoscale levels. Key...
Research & TechnologyeducationAmericasLasersLight SourcesNanopositioningnanonanoscaleOpticsaerospacenanophotonicsmetamaterialsoptical manipulationoptical tweezers

We use cookies to improve user experience and analyze our website traffic as stated in our Privacy Policy. By using this website, you agree to the use of cookies unless you have disabled them.