Macroscopic and direct light propulsion of bulk graphene material

Journal name:
Nature Photonics
Year published:
Published online


It has been a great challenge to achieve the direct light manipulation of matter on a bulk scale. In this work the direct light propulsion of matter is observed on a macroscopic scale using a bulk graphene-based material. The unique structure and properties of graphene, and the novel morphology of the bulk three-dimensional linked graphene material make it capable not only of absorbing light at various wavelengths but also of emitting energetic electrons efficiently enough to drive the bulk material, following Newtonian mechanics. Thus, the unique photonic and electronic properties of individual graphene sheets are manifested in the response of the bulk state. These results offer an exciting opportunity to bring about bulk-scale light manipulation with the potential to realize long-sought applications in areas such as the solar sail and space transportation driven directly by sunlight.

At a glance


  1. Measurement apparatus and schematics of light-induced propulsion and rotation of graphene sponge.
    Figure 1: Measurement apparatus and schematics of light-induced propulsion and rotation of graphene sponge.

    a, Schematic of the graphene sponge being propelled vertical upwardly with laser illumination from below. b, Apparatus for light-induced rotation of graphene sponge under laser illumination.

  2. Relationships between laser-induced propulsion/rotation of graphene sponge and laser wavelength and power density.
    Figure 2: Relationships between laser-induced propulsion/rotation of graphene sponge and laser wavelength and power density.

    a, Different vertical propulsion heights of the same sample over the same time (2 s) and with the same power density but different wavelengths (scale bars, 5 cm). b, Different vertical propulsion heights of the same sample over the same time (1 s) and with the same wavelength but different power densities (scale bars, 5 cm). c, Three-dimensional histogram showing the rotation speed of the graphene sponge sample, showing a distinct positive correlation with power density and frequency of the laser. d, The square of rotation speed increases linearly with laser power density, and lasers with different wavelengths give similar results. e, Linear relationship of laser power density and square of rotation speed for different samples (laser wavelength, 450 nm). f, For a given sample, the square of rotation speed increases almost linearly with a decrease in laser wavelength (or increase in photon energy) under the same laser power density (450, 532 and 650 nm, blue, green and red diamonds; the bigger the diamond, the higher the laser power density.) Error bars in df are the variance S2 of rotation speed.

  3. Schematic diagrams of the proposed mechanism.
    Figure 3: Schematic diagrams of the proposed mechanism.

    a, Schematic of the proposed mechanism of electron emission. The laser excites electrons from the valence band to the conduction band, and a population inversion state is achieved and maintained. Some hot electrons obtain enough energy to be ejected and become free electrons through Auger-like pathways. b, Schematic diagram showing the net emitted electrons flying away from the graphene sponge and propelling the graphene object along the laser propagation direction.

  4. Measurement of electron emission from the graphene sponge under laser illumination.
    Figure 4: Measurement of electron emission from the graphene sponge under laser illumination.

    a, Schematic of the device for measuring electrons emitted from the sample. b, A typical curve obtained by measuring the current intensity, with the on–off state of the laser controlled by a chopper. c, The average current signal intensity could be obtained (for details see Supplementary Section ‘Mathematical calculation of the average current signal intensity’) and, for a given laser wavelength, the intensity increased linearly with laser power density over a wide range. Error bars represent standard deviation (s.d.) for the same repeated measurements. d, Kinetic energy distribution spectrum of electrons emitted from graphene sponge under laser (450 nm) illumination, showing a broad energy distribution. e, Current signals under laser pulse illumination with different pulse widths (1,000, 50 and 2 ms). Neither a time-related delay impact nor meaningful current intensity change can be observed. The slight difference between signals is probably a result of measurement error.


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Author information

  1. These authors contributed equally to this work

    • Tengfei Zhang,
    • Huicong Chang &
    • Yingpeng Wu


  1. Key Laboratory of Functional Polymer Materials and Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, Collaborative Innovation Center of Chemical Science and Engineering, Institute of Polymer Chemistry, College of Chemistry, Nankai University, Tianjin 300071, China

    • Tengfei Zhang,
    • Huicong Chang,
    • Yingpeng Wu,
    • Peishuang Xiao,
    • Ningbo Yi,
    • Yanhong Lu,
    • Yanfeng Ma,
    • Yi Huang,
    • Kai Zhao &
    • Yongsheng Chen
  2. Key Laboratory of Weak Light Nonlinear Photonics, Ministry of Education, Teda Applied Physics School and School of Physics, Nankai University, Tianjin 300457, China

    • Xiao-Qing Yan,
    • Zhi-Bo Liu &
    • Jian-Guo Tian


Y.C. conceived and directed the study. T.Z. and H.C. carried out most of the experiments and data analysis. Y.W. carried out some initial experiments. T.Z. and Y.C., together with H.C., prepared most of the manuscipt. H.C. synthesized most of the samples and prepared the movies. Y.W., P.X., N.Y. and Y.L. participated in some experiments, data analysis and discussions. K.Z., X.Y. and Z.L. participated in current measurements. All authors participated in project discussions and production of the final manuscript.

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A Chinese patent based on this work has been filed (application no. CN2014105392945).

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