Single Molecule “Nanocar” Completes Test Runs

Forget the Mini or even the Ka, there’s a new leader in the race to produce the world’s smallest car, and this one is going to be hard to beat.

A team of eight researchers have produced an “electric car” from a single molecule. It’s not an attempt to solve crowded roads, but rather an experiment into the manipulation of tiny materials.

The molecule is arranged in a way that has a central stem (the chassis) leading to two hubs (the axles) each with two branches (the wheels). The branches rotate when they receive a tiny current from a scanning tunnelling microscope: a metal device with a tip as narrow as a single atom.

The results probably won’t do much to answer critics of electric cars’ limited ranges: a series of 10 electrical “charges” moves the “car” six billionths of a meter. What’s really important here is that the researchers were able to overcome forces such as gravity that would normally overwhelm such powered motion systems.

Wired notes that a strict analogy of this as a car would mean the wheels lifted up the entire vehicle each time they turned, making the experience more like being driven by someone who’d just got new hydraulics in his lowrider and really liked showing them off.

The other big problem is that not every wheel will turn every time. Having four wheels means there’s always enough turning to create constant motion, but even over the course of six nanometers, the direction proved more random than a perfect straight line.

The car analogy is also limited in that the experiment took place in a vacuum at -266 degrees Celsius. Repeating the success at higher temperatures and outside a vacuum are among the next steps in the study.

(Picture credit: Nature magazine via BBC)


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