October 28, 2005 – Researchers at Rice U. have developed a “nanocar,” a complex carbon molecule that behaves like a vehicle. Described in an upcoming issue of the journal Nano Letters, the construction, only a few nanometers long and thinner than human DNA, rolls on a gold surface and can be steered by electrical fields.
Four buckyballs, each a spherical molecule of 60 carbon atoms, make up the wheels, attached to carbon-atom axles. The wheels rotate and the axles pivot with respect to the chassis, permitting navigation and steering when heated to ~200 degrees Celsius. Strong bonding between the buckyball wheels and axles was not easy to achieve, as much of the eight-year long development process involved finding a way to utilize palladium as a catalyst, a reaction that the buckyballs tend to prevent.
Assistant prof. Kevin Kelly pointed out that it’s relatively easy to shove and slide nanoscale structures around on a surface, but “proving we were rolling …was one of the most difficult parts of this project,” requiring snapshots from a scanning tunneling microscope every minute to document the movement of the nanocars’ axles.
Rice researchers are currently working on a fleet of new nanovehicles, including a car manipulated by photons and a nanotruck capable of delivering a payload. “We even have a Mini Cooper,” noted James Tour, prof. of chemistry, mechanical engineering, materials science, and computer science. Eventual applications are seen in creating molecules that will act as tools in chemical reactions to build microprocessors or other components.