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In findings that took the experimenters three years to believe, University of Michigan engineers and their collaborators have demonstrated that light itself can twist ribbons of nanoparticles.

The results are published in the current edition of Science.

Matter readily bends and twists light. That’s the mechanism behind optical lenses and polarizing 3-D movie glasses. But the opposite interaction has rarely been observed, said Nicholas Kotov, principal investigator on the project. Kotov is a professor in the departments of Chemical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering.

While light has been known to affect matter on the molecular scale—-bending or twisting molecules a few nanometers in size—-it has not been observed causing such drastic mechanical twisting to larger particles. The nanoparticle ribbons in this study were between one and four micrometers long. A micrometer is one-millionth of a meter.

“I didn’t believe it at the beginning,” Kotov said. “To be honest, it took us three and a half years to really figure out how photons of light can lead to such a remarkable change in rigid structures a thousand times bigger than molecules.”

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