Newly invented nanotweezers can manipulate matter on tiny scales

Alastair Talbot

Imagine a future where humans could casually control their own health at the cellular level with light. Mechanical engineering assistant professor Yuebing Zheng is working on different types of “nanotweezers” — new tools for manipulating nanoparticles that use light and could lead to individual health monitoring and nanotechnology.

Dedicating the last five years to his research, Zheng and other engineers have created nanotweezers that will not only improve our understanding of biological systems, but that will make room for fundamental as well as technical innovations in nano-optics, or the study of the behavior of light on very small scales.

“With the help of nanotweezers, we’re able to control particles at the nanoscale,” Zheng said. “We’ll finally understand the human body.”

Zheng worked with chemical engineering professor Brian Korgel to show potential applications for nanotweezers.

“It is really an exciting time for this kind of experimental work,” Korgel said. “We have a convergence of new synthetic methods for nanomaterials with new physical and optical methods for manipulating these materials.”

Korgel’s “convergence” of nanophotonics, nanochemistry and nanophysics has provided the tools to manipulate objects on a scale that is much smaller than the diameter of a hair, Zheng said. His research has demonstrated that light can handle objects on the nanoscale just like how mechanical tweezers are used to handle larger ones.

“Light provides warmth, but it can also provide force, and more precisely, optical forces,” Zheng said. “It’s so unique because then we are basically able to use optics to control light at microscales, and even below that. A small laser beam is able to manipulate objects at a much smaller scale.”

Zheng said he believes nanotweezers may have a huge role in the field of medicine. He said he thinks the tool can enhance cell manipulation and the delivery and composition of medications.

“With a small sample of your blood or sweat, we can put it on a chip and do different types of manipulations, like counting of the cells,” Zheng said. “A lot of our body parts, like our immune system or our neuron network, depend on cell-to-cell interactions to coordinate accurately.”

Zheng said the next step of his research is to make nanotweezers compatible with living matter. He said he expects his nanotweezers to have applications in controlled drug release and the study of disease.

“Our new focus on biological objects will open a new door to early disease diagnosis and the discovery of nanomedicine,” Zhang said. “We are getting closer to using nanotweezers in clinical and practical applications.”

Zheng said he is confident the technology will be available in hospitals in the near future. He said the need for high power is the only thing that is holding nanotweezers back from being available to the public.

Individual health monitoring could be key to a more affordable healthcare, Zheng said.

“One of the goals in our research research is to provide more mobilized and global healthcare,” Zheng said. “Individual health monitoring would certainly be cheaper than going to the doctor’s or getting surgery.”