Race of world's tiniest cars set to drive nano-robot revolution

A model of the Ohio team’s nanocar (Image: CNRS)

You’ve never seen a race like this before. In fact, no one has, because the cars are too small to see with the naked eye.

This November, scientists from around the world will meet in Toulouse, France, for a world first: a car race conducted at the nanoscopic level. The race will test the capabilities of molecular machines which pave the way for future devices, ones that can practice medicine inside our bodies, or help us build computers.

There are five teams slated to compete, from France, the US, Austria, Germany and Japan (see box below). Each one’s nanocar is different: some are like macroscopic automobiles, with four wheels, axles, chassis and a small “motor”. Others have parts custom-designed for the car’s tiny environment. Even the largest is just a few nanometres long – a little wider than a strip of DNA.

Buckyball wheels

The nanocar’s origin dates to 2005, in James Tour’s lab at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Three or 4 nanometres long, it had buckyball wheels connected with axles and a chassis. It was made through a series of chemical reactions, producing a billion billion cars at a time.

“No one had really figured out how to construct something like that, how to have wheels that could truly rotate. All of that had to be worked out,” says Tour.

Race of world's tiniest cars set to drive nano-robot revolution

The Texas/Austria team’s nanocar (Image: CNRS)

More types of tiny cars and other vehicles have since been developed. At the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Metals Research in Dresden, Germany …

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