Motion of Optically Heated Spheres at the Water–Air Interface

A micrometer-sized spherical particle classically equilibrates at the water–air interface in partial wetting configuration, causing about no deformation to the interface. In condition of thermal equilibrium, the particle just undergoes faint Brownian motion, well visible under a microscope. We report experimental observations when the particle is made of a light-absorbing material and is heated up by a vertical laser beam. We show that, at small laser power, the particle is trapped in on-axis configuration, similarly to 2-dimensional trapping of a transparent sphere by optical forces. Conversely, on-axis trapping becomes unstable at higher power. The particle escapes off the laser axis and starts orbiting around the axis. We show that the laser-heated particle behaves as a microswimmer with velocities on the order of several 100 μm/s with just a few milliwatts of laser power.