Rice shines a light

Researchers from Rice University’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics have created rice-shaped particles of gold and iron oxide that can be used to focus light on small regions of space.

Engineers, physicists and chemists from RiceUniversity‘s Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP) have created rice-shaped particles of gold and iron oxide.

“On the nanoscale, the shape of a particle plays a critical role in how it interacts with light,” said LANP Director Naomi Halas. “We were looking for a new shape that would combine the best properties of the two most optically useful shapes – spheres and rods. That shape turned out to look exactly like a grain of rice.”

Nanoparticles like nanorice can be used to focus light on small regions of space. Rice’s scientists plan to capitalise on this by attaching grains of nanorice to scanning probe microscopes. By moving the grains next to proteins and unmapped features on the surfaces of cells, they hope to get a far clearer picture than what’s available with current technology.

In form, nanorice is similar to nanoshells, a spherical nanoparticle Halas invented in 1998 that is currently being examined for possible applications in molecular imaging, cancer treatment, medical diagnostics and chemical sensing. Both nanorice and nanoshells are made of a non-conducting core that is covered by a metallic shell.

Halas’ investigations find that nanorice possesses far greater structural tunability than nanoshells and another commonly studied optical nanoparticle, the nanorod. Tests indicate that nanorice is the most sensitive surface plasmon resonance (SPR) nanosensor yet devised.

Research over the past decade has shown that nanoscale objects can amplify and focus light in ways scientists never imagined. This is due in part to plasmons, ripples of waves in the ocean of electrons that flow constantly across the surfaces of metals. When light of a specific frequency strikes a plasmon that oscillates at a compatible frequency, the energy from the light is converted into electrical energy that propagates, as plasmons, through the nanostructure.

Changing the shape of a metal at the nanoscale allows engineers and scientists to modify the properties of these plasmon waves, controlling the way that the metal nanostructure responds to light. Because of this, metal nanostructures can have vivid colours that depend on their shape. Some nanoscale structures – like nanorice and nanoshells – act as superlenses that can amplify light waves and focus them to spot sizes far smaller than a wavelength of light.

In January 2005, for example, Halas and colleagues showed that nanoshells were about 10,000 times more effective at Surface-enhanced Raman Scattering (SERS) than traditional methods. Raman scattering is a type of spectrographic technique used by medical researchers, drug designers, chemists and others to determine the precise chemical makeup of materials.