Rice University Adds Nanodragster to Nanocar Collection


Image: Y. Shirai/Rice University

Researchers are calling the newest nanotoy in the Rice University collection a "nanodragster." The name fits the modification, with the front wheels smaller and on a narrower axle than the rear wheels. The nanodragster does, in fact, help the nanocar speed along faster than any before. Ever since Rice University researchers introduced a buckyball wheeled nanocar in 2005, teams have been racing to improve techniques for nanoassembly. Their prototypes are fun science on three levels.Nano-assembly Breakthroughs
First, the nanocars represent breakthroughs in scientific understanding of how to build machines at the nano scale: the nanodragster is only 1/25,000th of the width of a human hair. The rear wheels of the nanodragster are buckyballs, each made up of a web of 60 carbon atoms that arrange themselves into a sphere. The buckyball wheels can be imaged with a scanning tunneling microscope, which researchers have used to prove that the nanocars really roll on their wheels, as opposed to simply sliding along.

But buckyballs cannot get rolling until things get hot. The gold surface the nanocars race across must reach about 200°C before buckyballs start turning. Scientists discovered that wheels made of p-carborane, a cluster of carbon and borane atoms, can run at much cooler temperatures. But p-carborance wheels are difficult to trace, limiting the information that scientists can glean from the motion of the nanocars with p-carborane slicks.

Micro-machines
The nanodragster combines the best of both worlds, with buckyball rear tires and p-carborane front wheels. It also runs at the lowest temperatures yet. A lot of work has been done on making nanoparticles, less work on nano delivery systems. The nanocar, nanotruck, and now the nanodragster, represent potential methods for moving nanomaterials to where they are needed.

Popping Wheelies
Third, the nanocars are just plain fun. The nanodragster appears to pop wheelies as its front wheels lift from the surface when the torque is turned up on the buckballs. The nanodragster can also turn, if one of its wheels is lifted off the racetrack, a behavior not seen in earlier models.

All life depends on nano-assembly and nano-transport. Your body is built by the assembly of nano-parts in accordance with the instructions tied up in your DNA. It runs on messages carried throughout your body in the form of chemicals. And all of this happens at only 37°C (96.8°F), powered by the food we eat. Although what we don't know about nano is fodder for sci-fi nightmares, mastery of technology that operates anywhere close to such efficiency promises great hope.

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Tags: Chemicals | Gadgets | Nanotechnology | Universities

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