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Rice University has invented a new version of its "nanocar" which can drive at room temperature and is easily imaged.  (Source: Rice University)
New nanocar can roll at room temperature making it a promising platform for nanomachines

Nanomachines may one day climb along your skin, swim through your bloodstream, and fly through the air we breathe.  While the hazards of such miniature machines make rich cautionary science fiction fodder, the benefits may also be great.

While there have been great advances in developing useful nanoparticles and tiny nanodevices, the research into controllable platforms to deliver these devices on lags behind.  One such delivery platform is Rice University's nanocar.  James Tour a Professor of Chemistry, mechanical engineering and materials science and computer science at Rice, created the nanocar in 2005 spawning much excitement and subsequent research.

The car was made primarily out of carbon and featured buckyball wheels.  Later a paddlewheel motor powered by light was added, and the old wheels were swapped out for carboranes, which didn't trap the light energy like the buckyballs did.  Rice has created a number of variants including nanotrucks, nanobackhoes and other models.

Now Rice has rolled out the new model of its nanocar with some attractive features.  The original nanocars ran very hot -- requiring temps of 200 °C to travel across surfaces.  The new car automatically travels across surfaces at room temperature.

The new work is possible thanks in part to an innovation in imaging which saw a switch from imaging the nanocar with a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to single-molecule fluorescence imaging.  The new imaging technique, unlike STM requires no conductive substrate to visualize the car.  The improvement was cooked up by Rice associate professor Stephan Link. 

The researchers discovered by accident that their new cars were running at room temperature. Describes Professor Link, "We thought, 'We're just going to take an image, and nothing's going to happen'. To my surprise, my students came back and said, 'They moved!'"

Using a new tracking algorithm with time-lapse photography, the team detected the cars, tiny fluorescent dots, zig-zagging over a glass surface at a rate of 4.1 nanometers (or two nanocar lengths) per second.  Similar to techniques astronomers use to track moving stars, the new technique identified the nanocar by spotting its movement versus other fluorescing objects.

The new technique used tetramethylrhodamine isothiocyanate dye, which was also polarized, so you could tell which way the car was pointing.  Currently the dye is dragged like a trailer, but Professor Link hopes to incorporate it into the frame to speed up the car and cut drag.  He also hopes to add an extra pair of wheels to the current four to help the car maintain a straight path.  He states, "Now that we see movement, the challenge is to take it to the next level and make it go from point A to point B. That's not going to be easy."

The new research is published in the journal ACS Nano.

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Brownian motion
By Visual on 2/4/2009 9:51:31 AM , Rating: 2
Bah, a molecule moved by a distance nearly equal to its size. Alert the press!
Isn't this simple Brownian motion? What is the big fuss about?
It's not like they can control it anyway.

RE: Brownian motion
By cokbun on 2/4/2009 10:42:31 AM , Rating: 2
they will when they invented nano steering wheel

RE: Brownian motion
By MozeeToby on 2/4/2009 10:48:26 AM , Rating: 2
They can tell which way the car is pointed and they can tell that the car is moving in that direction. Brownian motion is, by definition, random.

This is a first step (actually more like a 20th step) in the right direction to being able to assemble individual molecules into macroscopic objects.

Yeah, they can't control it now, but a year ago they couldn't get it to move at room temp, 5 years ago they couldn't get it to move at all, and 15 years ago no one imagined being able to build such a complex object on these scales.

RE: Brownian motion
By cgrecu77 on 2/4/2009 11:31:07 AM , Rating: 2
they can tell, but they can't predict, so it's as random as it gets ... i guess the breakthrough is in their ability to make it move at room temp, but it could be meaningless if they can't control it.

It's like saying that the humankind made a breakthrough in their quest to colonize other planets by going to the moon 40 years ago ... True, but meaningless for the end goal.

RE: Brownian motion
By MozeeToby on 2/4/2009 11:52:02 AM , Rating: 2
No, they can look down at the car, see which way it is pointing, turn on the light, and watch the car move in that direction and continue moving in that direction. What they can't do is turn the car or change the direction without actually reaching down and turning the car by hand. Brownian motion would have the car vibrating randomly in all directions, not moving consistently in a direction that can be detected before it even starts moving.

How is going to the moon meaningless to the end goal of colonizing planets? Maybe its not the final step but if you can't get to the moon and survive there for a day you certainly can't get to Mars or Venus and live there for a lifetime.

Getting to the moon proved it is possible to leave the Earth's gravity well, plot a course to a distant object, land there, leave the safety of your ship, perform real tasks an the most inhospitable environment man has ever explored (arguable much worse than Mars would be), and return to Earth; all while not dying along the way.

It's not floating habitats in Venus's upper atmosphere or cities on the surface of Mars; but yeah, it's a good step in that direction. You've got to run before you can walk, you've got to launch things to the moon before you can colonize other planets, and you've got to have a way to move individual molecules around before you can build active nanotechnology.

RE: Brownian motion
By Visual on 2/5/2009 6:11:58 AM , Rating: 2
so you didn't read the part where they observed the "car" moving in zig-zag and not in a consistent direction?

RE: Brownian motion
By TSS on 2/4/2009 11:52:01 AM , Rating: 2
moving *at* two carlenghts per second. it didn't move 4.1 nanometers, it runs at 4.1nm/s. which makes it run at 14.76 micrometers/h.

in my oppinion, that's a pretty speedy vehicle for something that's 2.1 nanometers big. if the chevy volt is moving at 2 carlenghts per second, it's going at 32,4 km/h, or about 20 mp/h. not fast for the volt, but granted it's a quite bit bigger then bacteria.

RE: Brownian motion
By knightspawn1138 on 2/4/2009 5:00:23 PM , Rating: 3
It sounds like it moves faster than most cars driving the I-405 in rush hour. But really, it won't be advanced enough to impress me until it can cut off other nanocars and then flip the bird to them. That's true progress. Road rage on a molecular level.

RE: Brownian motion
By Smilin on 2/4/2009 1:25:25 PM , Rating: 2
you're a grinch.

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