The microscope sent an electrical current through the sulfur-based molecule (yellow), which was set on a conductive copper surface (orange) where carbon and hydrogen atoms radiated off of it (grey). Controlling the temperature allowed the researchers to impact the direction and rotational speed of the molecular motor  (Source: E. Charles H. Sykes)
This technology could eventually lead to a new class of devices used for engineering and medical purposes

Chemists from Tufts University's School of Arts and Sciences have created the world's first single molecule electric motor, which is being submitted to Guinness World Records for also being the smallest electric motor.

E. Charles H. Sykes, Ph.D., study leader and associate professor of chemistry at Tufts University's School of Arts and Sciences, along with a team of Tufts researchers, have developed the first single molecule electric motor, which could eventually lead to a new class of devices used for engineering and medical purposes.

The tiny electric motor measures 1 nanometer, which shatters the current world record of 200 nanometers for the smallest electric motor. The team plans to submit its tiny motor to Guinness World Records.

The team was able to control the motor with electricity through the use of a low-temperature scanning tunneling microscope (LT-STM). There are only about 100 of these microscopes in the United States, and it uses electrons instead of light to identify molecules.

With a metal tip on the microscope, an electrical charge was provided to a butyl methyl sulfide molecule that was positioned on conductive copper. The molecule then had carbon and hydrogen atoms radiating off of it with four carbons on one side and one on the other. These carbon chains had the ability to rotate around the "sulfur-copper bond."

The researchers were able to control the rotation of the molecule by adjusting the temperature. They found that temperatures at about 5 Kelvin (K), or minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit, the motor's motion was easy to track. The team then tracked all of the motor's rotations.

The Tufts team sees a future for the tiny motor, but they realized that more work needs to be done in regards to temperatures needed to make the motor operate. They found that it spins significantly faster at higher temperatures, making it more difficult to measure as well as control the rotation.

"There has been significant progress in the construction of molecular motors powered by light and by chemical reactions, but this is the first time that electrically-driven molecular motors have been demonstrated, despite a few theoretical proposals," said Sykes. "We have been able to show that you can provide electricity to a single molecule and get it to do something that is not just random.

"Once we have a better grasp on the temperatures necessary to make these motors function, there could be real-world application in some sensing and medical devices which involve tiny pipes. Friction of the fluid against the pipe walls increases at these small scales, and covering the wall with motors could help drive fluids along. Coupling molecular motion with electrical signals could also create miniature gears in nanoscale electrical circuits; these gears could be used in miniature delay lines, which are used in devices like cell phones."

This study was published in Nature Nanotechnology.

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