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The Best Showcase of Nanotechnology So Far May Be This Race of Tiny Cars

Avigator Thailand/Shutterstock.com

The racers have snazzy names: Green Buggy, Swiss Nano Dragster, Windmill, Dipolar Racer, Ohio Bobcat Nano Wagon and Nims-Mana Car. Each car will spend some 36 hours speeding around a challenging French racetrack. There will be drama, twists and lots of turns.

But what makes this race unusual is the cars don’t have wheels, motors, or even fuel. The drivers can only watch the action on a computer screen, because they are a billion times bigger than the cars. Welcome to the inaugural NanoCar Race.

nanocar-race
Six teams from three continents. (CNRS)

The cars are single molecules, the track is made of gold, and the environment will be chilled to near absolute zero (about -270°C or -450°F). The only way to move the racers is via a series of electric shocks, with each jolt pushing them about 0.3 nanometers—less than a thousandth the width of a human hair. To win, the cars have to “run” for 100 nanometers.

The only way to follow the action is with a sophisticated scientific instrument known as a scanning tunneling microscope. After each car gets an electric jolt, the STM will take 3 minutes to scan the race track and tell the contestants whether their cars moved.

(CNRS)

The gold track can only fit four cars at any one time. This week, the six contestants will battle it out in trials to determine the top four. The final competition will begin on April 28. Because the race will be too slow to watch in real time, the organizers will create a short animation every hour and post it online.

The aim of the race is not to win money or fame, but to get people excited about nanotechnology and molecular machines. The 2016 Nobel Prize in chemistry went to pioneers in the field, but public awareness about the potential of the technology remains low.

The race should provide valuable scientific insights for experts, too. A better understanding of the physical characteristics of molecular machines could help identify new applications such as relaying information or making chemical reactions go faster.

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