Refrigerating liquids with a laser

University of Washington researchers figured out how to make a laser refrigerate water and other liquids under real-world conditions. Researchers used an infrared laser to cool water by about 36 degrees Fahrenheit — a major breakthrough in the field.

The discovery could help industrial users “point cool” tiny areas with a focused point of light. Microprocessors, for instance, might someday use a laser beam to cool specific components in computer chips to prevent overheating and enable more efficient information processing.

Scientists could also use a laser beam to precisely cool a portion of a cell as it divides or repairs itself, essentially slowing these rapid processes down and giving researchers the opportunity to see how they work. Or they could cool a single neuron in a network — essentially silencing without damaging it — to see how its neighbors bypass it and rewire themselves.

As they are cooled by the laser, the nanocrystals developed by the UW team emit a reddish-green “glow” that can be seen by the naked eye.Dennis Wise/ University of Washington

PNAS – Laser refrigeration of hydrothermal nanocrystals in physiological media

“There’s a lot of interest in how cells divide and how molecules and enzymes function, and it’s never been possible before to refrigerate them to study their properties,” said Pauzauskie, who is also a scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. “Using laser cooling, it may be possible to prepare slow-motion movies of life in action. And the advantage is that you don’t have to cool the entire cell, which could kill it or change its behavior.”

The UW team chose infrared light for its cooling laser with biological applications in mind, as visible light could give cells a damaging “sunburn.” They demonstrated that the laser could refrigerate saline solution and cell culture media that are commonly used in genetic and molecular research.

To achieve the breakthrough, the UW team used a material commonly found in commercial lasers but essentially ran the laser phenomenon in reverse. They illuminated a single microscopic crystal suspended in water with infrared laser light to excite a unique kind of glow that has slightly more energy than that amount of light absorbed.

This higher-energy glow carries heat away from both the crystal and the water surrounding it. The laser refrigeration process was first demonstrated in vacuum conditions at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1995, but it has taken nearly 20 years to demonstrate this process in liquids.

Typically, growing laser crystals is an expensive process that requires lots of time and can cost thousands of dollars to produce just a single gram of material. The UW team demonstrated that a low-cost hydrothermal process can be used to manufacture a well-known laser crystal for laser refrigeration applications in a faster, inexpensive and scalable way.

The UW team also designed an instrument that uses a laser trap — akin to a microscopic tractor beam — to “hold” a single nanocrystal surrounded by liquid in a chamber and illuminate it with the laser. To determine whether the liquid is cooling, the instrument also projects the particle’s “shadow” in a way that allows the researchers to observe minute changes in its motion.

As the surrounding liquid cools, the trapped particle slows down, allowing the team to clearly observe the refrigerating effect. They also designed the crystal to change from a blueish-green to a reddish-green color as it cools, like a built-in color thermometer.

“The real challenge of the project was building an instrument and devising a method capable of determining the temperature of these nanocrystals using signatures of the same light that was used to trap them,” said lead author Paden Roder, who recently received his doctorate from the UW in materials science and engineering and now works at Intel Corp.

So far, the UW team has only demonstrated the cooling effect with a single nanocrystal, as exciting multiple crystals would require more laser power. The laser refrigeration process is currently quite energy intensive, Pauzauskie said, and future steps include looking for ways to improve its efficiency.

One day the cooling technology itself might be used to enable higher-power lasers for manufacturing, telecommunications or defense applications, as higher-powered lasers tend to overheat and melt down.

“Few people have thought about how they could use this technology to solve problems because using lasers to refrigerate liquids hasn’t been possible before,” he said. “We are interested in the ideas other scientists or businesses might have for how this might impact their basic research or bottom line.”


Although the laser refrigeration of bulk crystals has recently shown to cool below cryogenic temperatures (∼90 K) in vacuum, to date the laser refrigeration of physiological media has not been reported. In this work, a low-cost hydrothermal synthetic approach is used to prepare nanocrystals that are capable of locally refrigerating physiological buffers (PBS, DMEM) upon near-infrared illumination. Optical tweezers are used in tandem with cold Brownian motion analysis to observe the refrigeration of individual (Yb3+)-doped nanocrystals over 10 °C below ambient conditions. The ability to optically generate local refrigeration fields around individual nanocrystals promises to enable precise optical temperature control within integrated electronic/photonic/microfluidic circuits, and also thermal modulation of basic biomolecular processes, including the dynamics of motor proteins.


Coherent laser radiation has enabled many scientific and technological breakthroughs including Bose–Einstein condensates, ultrafast spectroscopy, superresolution optical microscopy, photothermal therapy, and long-distance telecommunications. However, it has remained a challenge to refrigerate liquid media (including physiological buffers) during laser illumination due to significant background solvent absorption and the rapid (∼ps) nonradiative vibrational relaxation of molecular electronic excited states. Here we demonstrate that single-beam laser trapping can be used to induce and quantify the local refrigeration of physiological media by over 10 °C following the emission of photoluminescence from upconverting yttrium lithium fluoride (YLF) nanocrystals. A simple, low-cost hydrothermal approach is used to synthesize polycrystalline particles with sizes ranging from less than 200 nm to over 1 μm. A tunable, near-infrared continuous-wave laser is used to optically trap individual YLF crystals with an irradiance on the order of 1 MW/cm2. Heat is transported out of the crystal lattice (across the solid–liquid interface) by anti-Stokes (blue-shifted) photons following upconversion of Yb3+ electronic excited states mediated by the absorption of optical phonons. Temperatures are quantified through analysis of the cold Brownian dynamics of individual nanocrystals in an inhomogeneous temperature field via forward light scattering in the back focal plane. The cold Brownian motion (CBM) analysis of individual YLF crystals indicates local cooling by over 21 °C below ambient conditions in D2O, suggesting a range of potential future applications including single-molecule biophysics and integrated photonic, electronic, and microfluidic devices.

SOURCES – Washington University, PNAS