Method for controlling nanomotors

Engineers at The University of Texas at Austin have developed the first method for selecting and switching the mechanical motion of nanomotors among multiple modes with simple visible light as the stimulus.

The capability of mechanical reconfiguration could lead to a new class of controllable nanoelectromechanical and nanorobotic devices for a variety of fields including drug delivery, optical sensing, communication, molecule release, detection, nanoparticle separation and microfluidic automation.

The finding, made by Donglei (Emma) Fan, associate professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Ph.D. candidate Zexi Liang, demonstrates how, depending on the intensity, light can instantly increase, stop and even reverse the rotation orientation of silicon nanomotors in an electric field. This effect and the underlying physical principles have been unveiled for the first time. It switches mechanical motion of rotary nanomotors among various modes instantaneously and effectively.

Science Advances – Visible light–gated reconfigurable rotary actuation of electric nanomotors

Nanomotors, which are nanoscale devices capable of converting energy into movement at the cellular and molecular levels, have the potential to be used in everything from drug delivery to nanoparticle separation.

Using light from a laser or light projector at strengths varying from visible to infrared, the UT researchers’ novel technique for reconfiguring the motion of nanomotors is efficient and simple in its function. Nanomotors with tunable speed have already been researched as drug delivery vessels, but using light to adjust the mechanical motions has far wider implications for nanomotors and nanotechnology research more generally.

“The ability to alter the behavior of nanodevices in this way – from passive to active – opens the door to the design of autonomous and intelligent machines at the nanoscale,” Fan said.

Fan describes the working principle of reconfigurable electric nanomotors as a mechanical analogy of electric transistors, the basic building blocks of microchips in cellphones, computers, laptops and other electronic devices that switch on demand to external stimuli.

“We successfully tested our hypothesis based on the newly discovered effect through a practical application,” Fan added.

“We were able to distinguish semiconductor and metal nanomaterials just by observing their different mechanical motions in response to light with a conventional optical microscope. This distinction was made in a noncontact and nondestructive manner compared to the prevailing destructive contact-based electric measurements.”

The discovery of light acting as a switch for adjusting the mechanical behaviors of nanomotors was based on examinations of the interactions of light, an electric field and semiconductor nanoparticles at play in a water-based solution.


Highly efficient and widely applicable working mechanisms that allow nanomaterials and devices to respond to external stimuli with controlled mechanical motions could make far-reaching impact to reconfigurable, adaptive, and robotic nanodevices. We report an innovative mechanism that allows multifold reconfiguration of mechanical rotation of semiconductor nanoentities in electric (E) fields by visible light stimulation. When illuminated by light in the visible-to-infrared regime, the rotation speed of semiconductor Si nanowires in E-fields can instantly increase, decrease, and even reverse the orientation, depending on the intensity of the applied light and the AC E-field frequency. This multifold rotational reconfiguration is highly efficient, instant, and facile. Switching between different modes can be simply controlled by the light intensity at an AC frequency. We carry out experiments, theoretical analysis, and simulations to understand the underlying principle, which can be attributed to the optically tunable polarization of Si nanowires in an aqueous suspension and an external E-field. Finally, leveraging this newly discovered effect, we successfully differentiate semiconductor and metallic nanoentities in a noncontact and nondestructive manner. This research could inspire a new class of reconfigurable nanoelectromechanical and nanorobotic devices for optical sensing, communication, molecule release, detection, nanoparticle separation, and microfluidic automation.

Changing the working scheme of nanodevices from static to dynamic, from passive to active, enabling intelligent and autonomous performances, could bring unprecedented impact to an array of applications in electronics, communication, sensing, therapy, and single-cell biology research


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