Space & Innovation

Nano-Cars to Race Across Atomic Obstacle Course

The race is part of an overall goal in the field of nanotechnology to control molecular vehicles designed to drive around inside the human body.

Teams of physics researchers are gearing up for a grueling, yet nearly invisible contest in which molecule-sized "nano-cars" will race through an atomic obstacle course driven by scientists wielding a super-powerful scanning microscope.

The race is part of an overall goal in the field of nanotechnology to solve important problems in the area of nano-scale manufacturing.

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The race will take place in a laboratory of the French materials science research center known as CEMES, in Toulouse this fall. The nano-cars are being built and tested on the racetrack this summer by teams from academic labs in Germany, France, Japan, the United States and a joint U.S.-Austria team.

You can watch video of the race here.

"The race is really for fun," said Christian Joachim, a physics researcher at CEMES and the nano-car race director. "Plus there are some delicate problems we have to solve."

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Joachim explained that the "racetrack" is actually a gold-covered chip kept at a frigid 5 Kelvin, or -450 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours at a time. Streams of electrons power the cars.

"The first fantastic thing is to learn how to control, by design and by chemistry, how the energy flows inside the molecule and how to use this energy," Joachim said. "This is important consequence of designing single-molecule motors."

While engineers have devised all kinds of futuristic applications for nanomotors -- such as exploring the human body a la "Fantastic Voyage" to deliver drug molecules destroy cancer cells one by one -- Joachim says a more short-term application is building powerful electronic circuits that can control the flow of information discreetly.

The teams will use a scanning tunneling electron microscope to observe the progress of their vehicles, Joachim said.

At Ohio University, teams of chemists and materials scientists are building the "Bobcat Nanowagon" for the big event, according to Saw Hla, a professor of physics.

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He says the challenge is figuring out how to drive the vehicle, which is made up of about 100 hydrogen and carbon atoms.

The German team is using a windmill design, while the Japanese group will deploying a car with tiny paddles. The Ohio vehicle is sticking with its Midwestern roots.

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"It's a typical American car, a big one, with four wheels," Hla said. "When we apply the electric field, the car will sense it and we can turn. That's the advantage we have."

Ohio University chemistry professor Eric Masson is assembling the car in the lab, while Hla's group will drive it during the race in France. The race itself will only take a few seconds, but the cars must be stopped and photographed through the special tunneling microscope to gauge their progress.

Naturally, the winning team gets dinner at the finest restaurant in Toulouse, the two-Michelin-star L'Amphitryon.

Teams of chemists and materials scientists at Ohio University built the Bobcat Nanowagon for the event.

NanoArt is a glimpse into an unbelievably tiny world that only a small number of scientists have viewed. For the average person, the realm of nanotechnology -- that is, structures smaller than a billionth of a meter -- is as remote and inaccessible as the moon. But nanoartist Cris Orfrescu wanted to change that. He created the NanoArt Exhibition to share the beauty of the nano-world with those of us living in the macro-world. Using electron microscopes, scientists capture images of nano-sized landscapes and then colorize them with digital photography software in order to create pieces of art. The following images are winners from the 2011 competition. Although you may be interested in learning what the image is, Orfrescu wants the public to see the nano-world independent of its source, for just its simple beauty. So with that in mind, we'll give you information about the artist and his or her inspiration, when known.

Plasticity in Steel Micro-pillars Siddhardtha Pathak was born in India and studied Metallurgical Engineering. He has a PhD in Materials Science and focuses on steel in his work. He currently works at the California Institute of Technology. As an artist, he's been featured all over the world. His inspiration comes from testing mechanical forces at the submicron scales. His images of steel used in space applications won him first place.

Wreck Elena Lucia Constantinescu is a scientist in cellular biology. After many years of working with her microscope in the lab, she wanted to share the world she saw. She said, "I was astonished by the countless possibilities offered by digital technology to turn the photos into artistic images. And I started to draw." Her colorized image of cellular biology won her second place.

Xura Bjorn Dampfling grew up in Northern Germany and has been an artist for the last 10 years. Dampfling likes to use pieces that speak to his artistic sentiments. In this example, he develops "wood into a piece of art, not by hiding its given structures, but by enhancing, twisting, coloring and using dozens of plates... (and) painting digitally into the images." His image Xura came in third place.

Fissure I Artist Carol Flaitz is married to an IBM electron microscopist and was awed by images he would bring home. She began to paint the pieces large scale using various materials in combination with the images to create texture. She says that her work is a reflection of her own marriage, where art and technology unite. Fissure I came in fourth place.

Birth of the World Daniela Caceta works on computer-generated artwork in Brazil. When using an electron microscope, she encounters interesting features such as formation, growth, development and mostly, the morphology of nanostructures. She talks of her works as an extension of the ancient Greek manipulation of dyes and pottery. She said they "were unaware of the size of the particles with which they were dealing, (but) they created colorful pottery glazes by manipulating nano-sized particles." Birth of the World came in fifth.

Spirals Rorivaldo Camargo was born in San Carlos and has spent eight years in electron microscopy. Five years ago, he began working with NanoArt and has magnified items up to a million times before colorizing them and displaying them around the world. Spirals won him sixth place.

Alumina Nanohairs Simona Barison graduated as a researcher of material science and is working on the synthesis and characterization of materials. She also focuses on advanced components for fuel cells and cooling devices in the Department of Energy and Transport. These beta-alumina nanohairs are seen under an electron microscope and came about through a physical reaction. Alumina Nanohairs won seventh place.

Quasicrystal Blossoms Teja Krasek has a degree in painting, and her work is focused on symmetry as a linking concept between art and science. She uses computers and traditional painting for colorization. She enjoys a shape's inner relations and incorporates mathematical relationships in her art, including "Fibonacci sequences, inward infinity and perceptual ambiguity." Quasicrystal Blossoms earned her eighth place.

Entanglio, based on quantum entangled particles Jack Mason has been creating his "nanographs" since 2002. As a journalist covering the commercialization of nanotech, he became fascinated with the scientific images that were part of the stories he was reporting. His pieces are developed using layers of atomic or molecular-scale images and structures. Entanglio, based on quantum entangled particles, earned ninth place.

Colorized Bird Nest Joel Kahn has been combining math, geometry and computers to produce artworks. He uses a powerful programming environment called BASIC-256 to artfully represent his images. In this case he used a previous image and altered the colors and details of the original image. The original image (Bird Nest) was provided by Cris Orfescu to those who do not have access to electronic microscopy.