Nanocars: The start of a revolution?
Elliot Howe | 27 March 2017

Yes, nanocars.  A molecular vehicle designed in 2005 by researchers at Rice University in Texas.  This nanocar has not only allowed us to study the uses and wonders of carbon in more detail, but shown the technological advances which have been made to allow us to work on such a small scale.  The car measures just 3-4 nanometres (x10-9m) in width, just making it slightly wider than a strand of DNA.  Modern technology now permits us to be able to engineer a few compounds together to cause them to act as wheels rolling along a gold metal surface.  Cool, eh?

The concept may sound simple, but the structure of this car is really rather complicated.  I'll start with the basic atom which makes up this structure: carbon.  From the latin 'carbo' meaning coal, carbon is one of the fundamental elements in the chemists' bible (the periodictable).  Organic chemistry (hydrocarbons, alkanes, alkenes) would not exist without this element.  Although that idea may sound appealing to most of you, without carbon, we would not have medicines or the common plastics we have.  Think about a pencil.  A common pencil contains graphite, which is a form of carbon.  Imagine a world without pencils.  What about diamonds?  That is carbon also, so imagine a wedding ring with no diamond in it.  It couldn't even be a plastic ring, because plastics contain carbon.  Do you see where I'm going with this?  Carbon is fundamental to not just science but the world.  Now that I've had my rant about the importance of carbon, I'll explain more about the structure of the car.

The 'wheels' of the car contain fullerenes, or 'Bucky Balls'(a nickname) which contain only carbon. In the case of the nanocar, the fullerenes are spherical, although they can come in different shapes.  Fullerene was first discovered in 1980, by Sumio Ijiama, through the image of an electronmicroscope.  Fullerenes have uniquechemistry compared to other carbon compounds, such as graphite and diamond.  For the use of nanocars, their heat resistance and superconductivity is useful in making this car (I will explainwhy later).  In the nanocar, there are 60carbon atoms in each fullerene (sounds like a lot when working on thismicroscopic scale!).

When heated to 200 degrees Celsius, the molecule begins tomove forward and move in a straight line on a gold surface.  This happens because the heat provides enough energy to the four carbon bonds bonded to the fullerene to cause them to rotate, hence causing the whole molecule to move forward.  This proved to be a major break-through for molecular science.

This original structure has changed over the years, where scientists have now produced a nanocar which can go round on a curved path!  Although this is just a brief summary of the nanocar, I believe that this molecule shows the development and use of technology and its effectiveness when studying science.  Although we may not all be able to afford this hi-tech equipment worth millions of pounds, we are able to use a study to broaden our own horizons on the world of science.

James Routledge 2016