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.