The length and time scales accessible to optical tweezers make them an ideal tool for the examination of colloidal systems. Embedded high-refractive-index tracer particles in an index-matched hard sphere suspension provide 'handles' within the system to investigate the mechanical behaviour. Passive observations of the motion of a single probe particle give information about the linear response behaviour of the system, which can be linked to the macroscopic frequency-dependent viscous and elastic moduli of the suspension. Separate 'dragging' experiments allow observation of a sample's nonlinear response to an applied stress on a particle-by particle basis. Optical force measurements have given new data about the dynamics of phase transitions and particle interactions; an example in this study is the transition from liquid-like to solid-like behaviour, and the emergence of a yield stress and other effects attributable to nearest-neighbour caging effects. The forces needed to break such cages and the frequency of these cage breaking events are investigated in detail for systems close to the glass transition.
Colloidal systems form the basis of many complex areas of academic and industrial research efforts. As well as contributing to the understanding of many industrially-produced substances such as paints and glues, they have also proved an excellent model thermodynamic system. Changing the properties of an ensemble of colloidal particles, chemically or otherwise, and observing the evolution of the many-body system gives insight into thermodynamic phenomena such as condensation and crystallisation. Some colloidal systems with a particle density that would place them around the dense end of the liquid-crystal coexistence region show a transition into an amorphous glassy state. Long range particle movement is prevented, while local diffusion is still allowed. Such systems are ideal candidates for exploration with optical force measurements, which allow the relatively non-intrusive manipulation of particles deep within colloidal suspensions. Careful use of refractive index matching has allowed an invisible colloidal suspension to be examined with probe particles of a similar size, but higher refractive index. The environment of particles in colloidal cages has been measured by studying the forces acting on a localised particle, as well as the forces needed to break one or more cages.
Typical optical tweezers setups use high numerical aperture oil-immersion objectives to trap particles suspended in an aqueous medium. When trapping deep inside a sample or out of the imaging plane the quality of the trap in such a system deteriorates due to optical aberrations caused by the refractive index mismatch at the glass-water interface. We investigate this effect experimentally by monitoring the two-photon fluorescence of trapped dye-stained polystyrene spheres. We consider the effect of the numerical aperture on the trap quality and also partly corrected the aberrations by optimising the fluorescence signal using an adaptive deformable membrane mirror.