By on April 28, 2017

NanoCar Race Poster

Tata’s Nano is a very small car, but it’s more than brobdingnagian compared to the vehicles racing this weekend in Toulouse, France.

The first international nanocar race — organized by the materials scientists at Centre Nationnal de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and its Centre d’Elaboration de Matériaux et d’Etudes Structurales (CEMES) — brings motorsports down to the molecular level. Four teams will compete under the observation of a special, four-tipped scanning tunneling microscope on a racecourse made of gold atoms just 100 nanometers long.

Nanocars, first developed in 2005 by James Tour at Rice University, are molecules made up of about 700 carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms, with an H-shaped backbone and four spherical wheels held to the frame by relatively weak carbon bonds that allow them to rotate. Later, chemist Bernard L. Feringa motorized the nanocars, powering them by electrons supplied by a scanning tunneling microscope.

While a race may be fun, this is serious science. Feringa was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work.

Considering a nanocar’s top end is about 5 nm/hr — that’s 3.1069e to the minus 13 power miles per hour — the race is really more of a scientific experiment and technological challenge than a test of speed. The object of the event, besides publicizing the research, is to greater perfect the observation and control of molecular scale machines. As we move into the future, such tiny machines may find use in making larger machines in atom-by-atom construction of both electrical circuits and structural shapes. Molecule machines may also help capture and store energy, or safely dispose industrial waste. Some of those machines will work independently and others collectively.

The Nanocar Race provides an opportunity for scientists to try methods for observing and maneuvering the molecular machines in real time.

The idea for the race started with CNRS researcher Christian Joachim, who will act as race director, and  Gwénaël Rapenne, a professor of chemistry at Université Toulouse. Nine teams applied to race, but there was a pre-race competition [dare we call it qualifying? —Ed] to prove teams could deposit and visualize their racing cars under the microscope and meet criteria for molecular structure and the propulsion mechanism. Six teams were selected to compete and four have made it to the starting line for the race, scheduled to begin April 28 and run for 36 hours. Yes, the little racecars in Toulouse will run 12 hours longer than the big cars at LeMans. The race will be streamed live on the Nanocar Race YouTube channel.

As mentioned, the course is 100 nanometers long, but it seems it’s more of a drag race than a road course, as it isn’t a circuit. It starts with a 20 nm straightaway that goes into a 45° turn, followed by a 30 nm straight, another 45° turn, and a finishing straight of 20 nm. The race rules say it has a 36 hour maximum duration, so my guess is the winner is whichever machine crosses the finish line first or is in the lead at the 36-hour mark. Rules allow for a car to be replaced in case of an accident. Pushing a car is prohibited but I suppose you’d need molecular scale hands to do so. Each team will be given their own sector of the gold racing surface and 6 hours to clean it prior to the race start.

No word on what the teams’ racing budgets, but I suspect these little cars cost more to build and setup than most 24 Hours of LeMons cars.

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