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Nanocars Will Race Across (a Very, Very Tiny Bit of) France

Ladies and gentlemen, start your molecules

smithsonian.com

The Daytona 500 is a  grueling race, requiring drivers to spend almost four hours behind the wheel to complete the 500-mile slog. But a new race debuting next month has it beat—racers will compete for 36 hours straight. But there is a catch: the cars have to be made from just a few hundred atoms or less.

As Andrew Liszewski reports for Gizmodo, the micro-machines will be part of the first NanoCar Race sponsored by the National Center for Scientific Research in Toulouse, France. Four teams, selected from a current group of six entries, will “race” their cars along a 100-nanometer tracks on a polished gold disc that will be kept at a frosty -454 degrees Fahrenheit. The cars will be powered by electron pulses from a scanning tunneling microscope. Those pulses will activate the wheels, windmills or whatever mechanism the team has designed for propulsion.

But similar races are unlikely to start springing up around the world. Toulouse is the only location where the race can take place because the city it is home to the only scanning tunneling microscope with four tips. Each team will have its own station and allowed six hours to clean and build their runway on the gold disc before the flag drops. During the race, the teams each have a control screen to guide their car across the golden plane.

The cars usually start in "powder" form and are then mixed with a solvent. To get them into place, teams evaporate the liquid with high temperatures. If not done precisely, however, the process could cause the cars to decompose, explains Christian Joachim, organizer of the race. It could also pollute the gold surface, which needs to be incredibly clean to allow the cars to move.

“Being able to simultaneously place four NanoCars in the same spot is a major challenge that we are currently meeting,” Joachim says. “It took a specialized German company three months to build the evaporator that makes this operation possible.”

Nanocar on the move
A microscopic nanocar on the move (NCSR)

The race was dreamt up by Joachim and his colleagues in 2013 while they were putting together an overview article about the current state of nano-machines. While the race is fun—gaining sponsors from Michelin, Toyota and Peugot—organizers consider it an important experiment to help further scientific understanding of how to construct and maneuver nano-scale machines.

"[T]he objective of the race is to see how molecules behave under these very particular conditions," Waka Nakanishi, leader of the Japanese team, tells Fernando Gomollón-Bel at Scientific American. "We’re having this race to have fun and to share [the importance of our] discoveries with the world."

Molecular machines are a fast-growing frontier in physics and chemistry. In October, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to the researchers who created the techniques and building blocks that make up the current fleet of nanocars and that will power future tiny machines. Eventually, such microscopic machines could be used to deliver medicines inside the body, automatically repair building materials or even help clean up the environment.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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