Nanophotonics experts at Rice University have created a unique sensor that amplifies the optical signature of molecules by about 100 billion times. Newly published tests found the device could accurately identify the composition and structure of individual molecules containing fewer than 20 atoms.
The new imaging method, which is described this week in the journal Nature Communications, uses a form of Raman spectroscopy in combination with an intricate but mass reproducible optical amplifier. Researchers at Rice's Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP) said the single-molecule sensor is about 10 times more powerful that previously reported devices.
"Ours and other research groups have been designing single-molecule sensors for several years, but this new approach offers advantages over any previously reported method," said LANP Director Naomi Halas, the lead scientist on the study. "The ideal single-molecule sensor would be able to identify an unknown molecule -- even a very small one -- without any prior information about that molecule's structure or composition. That's not possible with current technology, but this new technique has that potential."
The optical sensor uses Raman spectroscopy, a technique pioneered in the 1930s that blossomed after the advent of lasers in the 1960s. When light strikes a molecule, most of its photons bounce off or pass directly through, but a tiny fraction -- fewer than one in a trillion -- are absorbed and re-emitted into another energy level that differs from their initial level. By measuring and analyzing these re-emitted photons through Raman spectroscopy, scientists can decipher the types of atoms in a molecule as well as their structural arrangement.
Scientists have created a number of techniques to boost Raman signals. In the new study, LANP graduate student Yu Zhang used one of these, a two-coherent-laser technique called "coherent anti-Stokes Raman spectroscopy," or CARS. By usin
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