Ultrasensitive torque detection with an optically levitated nanorotor


Torque sensors such as the torsion balance enabled the first determination of the gravitational constant by Henri Cavendish1 and the discovery of Coulomb’s law. Torque sensors are also widely used in studying small-scale magnetism2,3, the Casimir effect4 and other applications5. Great effort has been made to improve the torque detection sensitivity by nanofabrication and cryogenic cooling. Until now, the most sensitive torque sensor has achieved a remarkable sensitivity of 2.9 × 10−24 N m Hz−1/2 at millikelvin temperatures in a dilution refrigerator6. Here, we show a torque sensor reaching sensitivity of (4.2 ± 1.2) × 10−27 N m Hz−1/2 at room temperature. It is created by an optically levitated nanoparticle in vacuum. Our system does not require complex nanofabrication. Moreover, we drive a nanoparticle to rotate at a record high speed beyond 5 GHz (300 billion r.p.m.). Our calculations show that this system will be able to detect the long sought after vacuum friction7,8,9,10 near a surface under realistic conditions. The optically levitated nanorotor will also have applications in studying nanoscale magnetism2,3 and the quantum geometric phase11.

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Fig. 1: Experimental schematic and rotation spectra of an optically levitated nanoparticle.
Fig. 2: Vibration and rotation of optically levitated silica nanoparticles.
Fig. 3: Ultrasensitive detection of an external torque.
Fig. 4: Calculated vacuum friction on a rotating nanosphere near a surface.

Data availability

The data that support the plots within this paper and other findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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We thank F. Robicheaux, T. Seberson, R. Zhao, Z. Jacob, Q. Han and R.M. Ma for helpful discussions. We are grateful to support from the Office of Naval Research under grant no. N00014-18-1-2371, the NSF under grant no. PHY-1555035 and the DARPA NLM program.

Author information

J.A. and T.L. conceived and designed the project. J.A., J.B. and P.J. performed experiments. Z.X. and X.G. calculated the vacuum friction. J.A., Z.X. and T.L. analysed the results. T.L. supervised the project. All authors contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

Correspondence to Tongcang Li.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–3, Discussion and Table 1.

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Source Data Fig. 1

Raw data for Fig. 1b

Source Data Fig. 2

Raw data for Fig. 2c,d and 2d inset

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Raw data for Fig. 3b,d–f

Source Data Fig. 4

Raw data for Fig. 4a,b

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Ahn, J., Xu, Z., Bang, J. et al. Ultrasensitive torque detection with an optically levitated nanorotor. Nat. Nanotechnol. 15, 89–93 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-019-0605-9

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