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The World’s First Nanocar Race Showcases Single-Molecule Machines

Life at the breakneck speed of 35 nanometers per hour.

The world's smallest racecars faced off over the weekend on a track thinner than a human hair. It was the debut Nanocar Grand Prix, an international challenge to design and race vehicles made of single molecules. Developed and hosted by the Center for the Development of Materials and Structural Studies (CEMES) in Toulouse, France, the race was conceived in 2013 as a way to showcase test platforms for mobile nanotechnologies through the fun and relatable medium of automotive racing.


The small-scale showdown kicked off early Saturday with its heat of six nanoscale competitors, built by teams from around the world. Instead of burning rubber, these cars were propelled along a crystal gold surface with periodic electric shocks administered by teams with a scanning tunnel microscope.

Some of the tiny buggies were designed to resemble real cars, while others took inspiration from the movement patterns of caterpillars or windmills. This diversity reflects the history of normal-scale racecar driving, according to Christian Joachim, a CEMES nanoscientist and the director of the race.

"In 1894, the first ever car race was organized between Paris and Rouen and if you look carefully, they decided at that time to keep all kinds of propulsion," Joachim told LiveScience. "We accepted a large variation of molecular designs on purpose to try to understand what works best."

The Green Buggy, developed by Joachim and his fellow CEMES researchers, may have been the hometown favorite, but it broke down on the starting line, according to the leaderboard. The NIMS-MANA Car, representing Japan's National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS), made it one nanometer before sputtering out.

Meanwhile, the Dipolar Racer, a joint American-Australian entry, gained an early lead with an average speed of 35 nanometers per hour, and won the race with 450 nanometers under its belt over nine hours. The silver medal went to the University of Basel's Swiss Nano Dragster, with 133 nanometers of mileage, followed by Ohio University's Bobcat Nano-Wagon and Technical University of Dresden's Windmill car, with 45 and 11 nanometers respectively.

Read More: MIT Physicists Are Designing Microscopic Robots to Walk Inside Our Bodies

Devising ways to manipulate nanoscale entities is a hot topic, especially since the 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to research into molecular machines and motors. But for Joachim and the other racers, there's no clear roadmap for the future of these tiny cars—and that's part of the fun.

"We don't really know, with this technology, what we will get out of it," he said. "Right now, we are just opening up the technology and science."

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