Self-stabilizing photonic levitation and propulsion of nanostructured macroscopic objects


Light is a powerful tool to manipulate matter, but existing approaches often necessitate focused, high-intensity light that limits the manipulated object’s shape, material and size. Here, we report that self-stabilizing optical manipulation of macroscopic—millimetre-, centimetre- and even metre-scale—objects could be achieved by controlling the anisotropy of light scattering along the object’s surface. In a scalable design that features silicon resonators on silica substrate, we identify nanophotonic structures that can self-stabilize when rotated and/or translated relative to the optical axis. Nanoscale control of scattering across a large area creates restoring behaviour by engineering the scattered phase, without needing to focus incident light or excessively constrain the shape, size or material composition of the object. Our findings may lead to platforms for manipulating macroscopic objects, with applications ranging from contactless wafer-scale fabrication and assembly, to trajectory control for ultra-light spacecraft and even laser-propelled light sails for space exploration.

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Fig. 1: Engineering optical anisotropy for self-stabilizing manipulation.
Fig. 2: MEPS.
Fig. 3: Example dynamics of a propelled nanostructured object.
Fig. 4: Towards composite passively self-stabilizing structures.

Data availability

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


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The authors thank colleagues from the Breakthrough Starshot Lightsail committee for discussions, and acknowledge financial support from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under grant number FA9550-16-1-0019. The authors also acknowledge discussions with A. Davoyan, O. Miller, Z. Manchester, M. Kelzenberg, I. Kaminer, C. Went, W. Whitney, M. Sherrott, J. Wong, D. Jariwala, P. Jha and H. Akbari.

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All authors discussed the results and made critical contributions to the work.

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Correspondence to Harry A. Atwater.

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Supplementary Information

This file contains more information on the work and Supplementary Figures 1–8.

Supplementary Video 1

Time evolution of the dynamics of a structure that is initially both displaced (0. 5D) and tilted (10%).

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Ilic, O., Atwater, H.A. Self-stabilizing photonic levitation and propulsion of nanostructured macroscopic objects. Nat. Photonics 13, 289–295 (2019).

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