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As mechanical devices shrink down to the nanoscale, they fall victim to a strange quantum effect that makes their moving parts stick together. But theoretical physicists at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, have found a way to turn that effect against itself, producing completely frictionless nanomachines.

Current microelectromechanical systems–used in accelerometers, car air-bag triggers, and optical switches that transfer light from one fiber to another–have moving parts separated by about one micrometer. But that distance will soon shrink to a few hundred nanometers. At such short distances, a quantum-mechanical effect known as the Casimir force–which is too weak to be seen at distances greater than a micrometer–becomes significant. “If you have nanoelectromechanical systems [NEMS] with mobile parts, the Casimir force will be attractive, and the parts will stick together,” says Ricardo Decca, associate professor of physics at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “This causes friction, and these devices will not move.”

St. Andrews researchers Ulf Leonhardt and Thomas Philbin have calculated that a specially engineered material called a perfect lens can reverse the direction of the Casimir effect. Sandwiching such a lens between NEMS parts would eliminate friction by making the parts repel each other instead of sticking together. Leonhardt and Philbin’s calculations–which will appear in the New Journal of Physics–suggest that the repulsive force could even be made strong enough to make the parts levitate. Such manipulations of the Casimir effect could lead to frictionless NEMS devices with tiny mirrors and metal plates that pivot easily on their anchors or that are suspended in air.

Perfect lenses are nothing like conventional glass lenses. Instead, they are made of metal carved into a repetitive lattice-like structure. Glass lenses such as the ones used in cameras can’t resolve details of an object that are smaller than the wavelength of the light bouncing off them. Perfect lenses do not have that limitation. And they bend–or refract–light in a direction opposite to that in which ordinary materials like water and glass bend it. Researchers predict that perfect lenses could lead to higher-density DVDs, ultrahigh-resolution microscopes that can image nanoscale objects, and faster fiber-optic communications.

The technology to make such optical lenses is only a few years old. But Philbin says it’s already good enough to produce lenses that can convert the Casimir attraction between objects into repulsion. Leonhardt and Philbin’s calculations show that such lenses should also be sufficient to levitate an aluminum foil 500 nanometers thick. “In theory, if you could build the right kind of lens, you could levitate heavier objects,” Philbin says.

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Credit: Photo Courtesy of Ted Outerbridge

Tagged: Computing, Materials, nanotechnology, optics, micrscope, Casimir force

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