Rice University researchers have tested nanocars outside of a vacuum sealed environment (via Rice University)


Researchers have been using nanocars, molecular-scale cars that may carry tiny payloads one day, for testing in different vacuum environments for a while. But one group of researchers at Rice University have taken nanocars out of sealed environments and out into the open. The university, who first developed the nanocars, teamed up with North Carolina State University to give the tiny vehicles the ability to move around in ambient environments. “Our long-term goal is to make nanomachines that operate in ambient environments,” said James Tour of Rice University. “That’s when they will show potential to become useful tools for medicine and bottom-up manufacturing.”


This new nanocar model has adamantane wheels that are water repellent, which allows them to move on the surface made of glass without getting stuck. Balance is an important key here because if the wheels repel water too much they risk getting stuck in place. Testing takes place on glass surfaces and glass coated with polymer polyethylene glycol (PEG). The plain glass surface was coated with hydrogen peroxide to prevent wheels from sticking while the PEG coated glass offered a non-sticky surface.


These test drives are meant to show what makes a nanocar “hit the brakes” and how much energy it needs to exerts to get it moving again. Once the cars hit the track they started running into some problems. The nanocars had a difficult time moving on glass surfaces because they kept get dirty since they were exposed to molecules in the air. Though the molecules are small they still acted like obstacles preventing the cars to continue moving. The nanocars actually moved faster on the PEG-coated surface and twice as many move on these slide than the plain ones.


Even though the results were less than stellar, it shouldn't impact their chances at the first ever Nanocars Race in France this fall. The event features five nanocars from different countries including the US, Germany, and Japan and will be “invisible to the naked eye.” A unique microscope based in Toulouse, France will be used so spectators can watch the competition around the world. The track the cars will be racing on is made of single gold atoms dropped on a gold surface. The track is then placed inside a scanning tunneling microscope based at the CNRS Centre d'Elaboration de Materiaux et d'Etudes Structurales (CEMES). The EMES STM is the world's only 4-needle microscope that makes it possible to drive four nanocars at the same time.


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