Jan. 7, 2009 Magicians have long created the illusion of levitating objects in the air. Now researchers have actually levitated an object, suspending it without the need for external support. Working at the molecular level, the researchers relied on the tendency of certain combinations of molecules to repel each other at close contact, effectively suspending one surface above another by a microscopic distance.
Researchers from Harvard University and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have measured, for the first time, a repulsive quantum mechanical force that could be harnessed and tailored for a wide range of new nanotechnology applications.
The study, led by Federico Capasso, Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), will be published as the January 8 cover story of Nature.
The discovery builds on previous work related to what is called the Casimir force. While long considered only of theoretical interest, physicists discovered that this attractive force, caused by quantum fluctuations of the energy associated with Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, becomes significant when the space between two metallic surfaces, such as two mirrors facing one another, measures less than about 100 nanometers.
"When two surfaces of the same material, such as gold, are separated by vacuum, air, or a fluid, the resulting force is always attractive," explained Capasso.
Remarkably, but in keeping with quantum theory, when the scientists replaced one of the two metallic surfaces immersed in a fluid with one made of silica, the force between them switched from attractive to repulsive. As a result, for the first time, Capasso and his colleagues measured what they have deemed a repulsive Casimir.
To measure the repulsive force, the team immersed a gold coated microsphere attached to a mechanical cantilever in a liquid (bromobenzene) and measured its deflection as the distance from a nearby silica plate was varied.
"Repulsive Casimir forces are of great interest since they can be used in new ultra-sensitive force and torque sensors to levitate an object immersed in a fluid at nanometric distances above a surface. Further, these objects are free to rotate or translate relative to each other with minimal static friction because their surfaces never come into direct contact," said Capasso.
By contrast, attractive Casimir forces can limit the ultimate miniaturization of small-scale devices known as Micro Electromechanical Systems (MEMS), a technology widely used to trigger the release of airbags in cars, as the attractive forces may push together moving parts and render them inoperable, an effect known as stiction.
Potential applications of the team's finding include the development of nanoscale-bearings based on quantum levitation suitable for situations when ultra-low static friction among micro- or nano-fabricated mechanical parts is necessary. Specifically, the researchers envision new types of nanoscale compasses, accelerometers, and gyroscopes.
Capasso's coauthors are Jeremy Munday, formerly a graduate student in Harvard's Department of Physics and presently a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology, and Dr. V. Adrian Parsegian, Senior Investigator at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The Harvard researchers have filed for a U.S. patent covering nanodevices based on quantum levitation.
The authors acknowledge the support of the Center for Nanoscale Systems at Harvard University, a member of the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network; the National Science Foundation; the Intramural Research Program of the NIH; and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
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