The fastest-spinning object ever made could help spot quantum friction in a vacuum

A sensor made with a swiftly revolving nanoparticle can detect minute torques

researchers working on torque sensor

A new torque sensor that uses a fast-spinning nanoparticle can detect tiny forces, say scientists Tongcang Li (left), Jonghoon Ahn (right) and colleagues.

Vincent Walter, Purdue University

To detect the quantum friction of empty space, scientists are going for a spin.

A twirling nanoparticle, suspended in a laser beam inside of a vacuum, can measure tiny twisting forces, making it the most sensitive detector of torque yet created. Researchers say the device could one day detect an elusive quantum effect called vacuum friction.

The suspended nanoparticle can spin more than 300 billion times a minute. “This is the fastest human-made rotor in the world,” says physicist Tongcang Li of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

To measure torque with the device, Li and colleagues hit the nanoparticle with a second laser, which they switched on and off at regular intervals. The laser was circularly polarized, meaning that the light’s electromagnetic waves rotated over time, and this twist imparted a torque on the nanoparticle. The researchers estimated the amount of torque by measuring how the particle’s speed changed as that second laser switched on and off.

When operated for 100 seconds, the sensor could measure torques as small as about 0.4 trillionths of a quadrillionth of a newton-meter. For comparison, one newton-meter is the approximate amount of torque needed to twist a cap off a soda bottle. The device is around 700 times as sensitive as the previous best torque sensor, the researchers report January 13 in Nature Nanotechnology.

The device is so sensitive that it could be used to observe the minuscule impact of vacuum friction, a counterintuitive quantum effect in which an object spinning rapidly in empty space feels drag — despite being surrounded by nothingness. The never-before-seen effect is predicted to arise from interactions of the spinning object with electromagnetic fields that, according to quantum mechanics, appear and disappear constantly, even in empty space (SN: 11/13/16).

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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