Optical manipulation of plasmonic nanoparticles provides opportunities for fundamental and technical innovation in nanophotonics. Optical heating arising from the photon-to-phonon conversion is considered as an intrinsic loss in metal nanoparticles, which limits their applications. We show here that this drawback can be turned into an advantage, by developing an extremely low-power optical tweezing technique, termed opto-thermoelectric nanotweezers. By optically heating a thermoplasmonic substrate, a light-directed thermoelectric field can be generated due to spatial separation of dissolved ions within the heating laser spot, which allows us to manipulate metal nanoparticles of a wide range of materials, sizes and shapes with single-particle resolution. In combination with dark-field optical imaging, nanoparticles can be selectively trapped and their spectroscopic response can be resolved in situ. With its simple optics, versatile low-power operation, applicability to diverse nanoparticles and tunable working wavelength, opto-thermoelectric nanotweezers will become a powerful tool in colloid science and nanotechnology.

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Y.Z. acknowledges the financial supports of the Beckman Young Investigator Program, the Army Research Office (W911NF-17-1-0561), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Early Career Faculty Award (80NSSC17K0520) and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health (DP2GM128446). E.-L.F. acknowledges the financial support of the National Science Foundation (DMR-1310559 and DMR-1710646). B.A.K. and E.A. acknowledge the financial supports of the Robert A. Welch Foundation (F-1464) and the National Science Foundation (EFMA-1346647). We also thank the Texas Advanced Computing Centre at The University of Texas at Austin (http://www.tacc.utexas.edu) for providing HPC resources that have contributed to the research results reported within this paper.

Author information

Author notes

  1. These authors contributed equally: Linhan Lin, Mingsong Wang and Xiaolei Peng.


  1. Department of Mechanical Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA

    • Linhan Lin
    • , Mingsong Wang
    •  & Yuebing Zheng
  2. Materials Science and Engineering Program and Texas Materials Institute, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA

    • Linhan Lin
    • , Xiaolei Peng
    •  & Yuebing Zheng
  3. Center for Nonlinear Dynamics, Department of Physics, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA

    • Emanuel N. Lissek
    •  & Ernst-Ludwig Florin
  4. Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA

    • Zhangming Mao
  5. Bionanoplasmonics Laboratory, CIC biomaGUNE, Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain

    • Leonardo Scarabelli
    •  & Luis M. Liz-Marzán
  6. California NanoSystems Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA

    • Leonardo Scarabelli
  7. McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA

    • Emily Adkins
    •  & Brian A. Korgel
  8. Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey

    • Sahin Coskun
    •  & Husnu Emrah Unalan
  9. Ikerbasque, Basque Foundation for Science, Bilbao, Spain

    • Luis M. Liz-Marzán
  10. CIBER de Bioingeniería, Biomateriales y Nanomedicina, CIBER-BBN, Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain

    • Luis M. Liz-Marzán


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L.L. and Y.Z. conceived the idea. L.L., M.W. and X.P. prepared the materials, worked on the trapping experiments and collected the data. E.N.L., X.P. and E.-L.F. worked on the measurements of trapping stiffness. Z.M. conducted the computational fluid dynamic simulations. L.L. conducted finite-difference time-domain simulations. L.S. and L.M.L.-M. synthesized the AuNTs. E.A., S.C., H.E.U. and B.A.K. synthesized the AgNWs. Y.Z. supervised the project. All authors participated in the discussion of the results and wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Yuebing Zheng.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures and Supplementary Notes.

  2. Supplementary Video 1

    Real-time trapping, dynamic transport and release of a single 100-nm Ag nanosphere (AgNS).

  3. Supplementary Video 2

    Parallel trapping of six 100-nm AgNSs in a circle.

  4. Supplementary Video 3

    Trapping and rotation of a single Ag nanowire (AgNW).

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