Scientists create world’s smallest car via nanotech

11 Nov 2011

The world's smallest nano car, which is comprised of one single molecule

You’ll never get to sit in this car, and even a hummingbird couldn’t fit in it, but scientists in Switzerland and the Netherlands have been playing with nanotechnology to the max, developing a noiseless nano car that’s comprised of just one single molecule!

The noiseless, emission-free, four-wheel drive car, jointly developed by scientists at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and at Empa, epitomises the far-reaching possibilities of nanotechnology to reduce materials to the max. It’s also being termed the world’s smallest electric car.

According to its pioneers, the nano car consists of just a single molecule and travels on four electrically driven wheels in an almost straight line over a copper surface.

The film Honey I Shrunk The Kids comes to mind, especially as the molecular car measures about 4×2 nanometres.

Picture a VW Golf and then imagine a car about 1bn times smaller than that – there you have the nano car.

Nano-scale transport systems

The prototype also graces the front cover of the latest edition of Nature.

Nature has termed the molecular transport research a “decisive step on the road to artificial”.

So how did they do it?

According to the two research teams, they “synthesised” a molecule from four rotating wheels, which can travel straight ahead in a controlled manner.

“To do this, our car needs neither rails nor petrol; it runs on electricity. It must be the smallest electric car in the world – and it even comes with four-wheel drive,” said Empa researcher Karl-Heinz Ernst.

The downside of the car, said the scientists, is that it needs to be refuelled with electricity after every half revolution of the wheels – via the tip of a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM).

Also, due to its molecular design, the car’s wheels can only turn in one direction.

“In other words: there’s no reverse gear,” said Ernst, who is also a professor at the University of Zurich.

In advance of Dublin City of Science 2012, is hosting Science November, a month dedicated to news, reports, interviews and videos covering a range of Irish science, research and innovation.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic