The smallest car race in the world

Credit: Edumol Molecular Visualizations via Wikimedia Commons

France is a country we would normally associate with high speed car racing, especially when talking about event partners such as Michelin and team sponsors like Toyota and Volkswagen. However, come the 28th of this month, Toulouse will be host to the world’s first international nanocar race. These nanocars, dubbed molecular machines, are comprised of a few hundred atoms, have real wheels and actual chassis and are driven by pulses of electrical energy. The competing teams have 38 hours to complete the 100 nanometre (one billionth of a meter) course made of gold atoms, in which they will perform a total of 2 turns along the run.  

Senior researcher Christian Joachim from  the CNRS (Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique) and Gwénaël Rapenne, a Professor of Chemistry at Université Toulouse III – Paul Sabatier, came up with the idea during a project started in 2013. There were numerous problems encountered when designing the race, such as what material the course should consist of and what propulsion mechanism should be adopted by the team. By the end of May 2016 (the entry deadline) nine teams had applied, out of which only 4 will compete in the final race.

This event, which is organised by the CNRS, is a technological challenge to say the least, but most importantly it is a project designed to further the advancement and development of the technology concerned. The CNRS has an extremely advanced and powerful microscope at their CEMES (Centre d’élaboration de matériaux et d’études structurales) campus in Toulouse, where the race will be taking place. The scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) is one of a kind in the world, allowing for four different experimenters to operate individually on the same surface.

The first of its kind, this international experiment will no doubt be fun, but in its essence it is an experiment that will yield crucial data on the STM itself as well as take leaps and bounds in physical and chemical novel fields such as surface chemistry and in situ synthesis. Furthering technology in the fields of molecular machines could well lead to them being adopted in medical and pharmaceutical industries as well as biological research under the guise of a carrier molecule, e.g. for the active transport of a single molecule in a liquid. The uses are endless and more uses will surely arise as the technology advances.

The race will be broadcast live to audiences via the CEMES-CNRS YouTube channel – NanoCarRace.  

This article was written by Blair Donaldson and edited by Teodora Aldea.

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