Light beams can manipulate molecules and small biological particles

Atoms, molecules or even living cells can be manipulated with light beams. At TU Wien a method was developed to revolutionize such “optical tweezers”.

They are reminiscent of the “tractor beam” in Star Trek: special light beams can be used to manipulate molecules or small biological particles. Even viruses or cells can be captured or moved. However, these optical tweezers only work with objects in empty space or in transparent liquids. Any disturbing environment would deflect the light waves and destroy the effect. This is a problem, in particular with biological samples because they are usually embedded in a very complex environment.

But scientists at TU Wien (Vienna) have now shown how virtue can be made of necessity: A special calculation method was developed to determine the perfect wave form to manipulate small particles in the presence of a disordered environment. This makes it possible to hold, move or rotate individual particles inside a sample – even if they cannot be touched directly. The tailor-made light beam becomes a universal remote control for everything small. Microwave experiments have already demonstrated that the method works. The new optical tweezer technology has now been presented in the journal “Nature Photonics”.

Optical tweezers in disordered environments

“Using laser beams to manipulate matter is nothing unusual anymore,” explains Prof. Stefan Rotter from the Institute for Theoretical Physics at TU Wien. In 1997, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for laser beams that cool atoms by slowing them down. In 2018, another Physics Nobel Prize recognized the development of optical tweezers.

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Source: “A remote control for everything small”, Florian Aigner, TU Wien