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World's Smallest Auto: Dutch Scientists Drive Single-Molecule Car

Its wheels are comprised of a few atoms each; its motor, a mere jolt of electricity. Scientists in the Netherlands have introduced the world's smallest car -- and it's only a single molecule long.

Scientists in the Netherlands have introduced a molecule-sized car. Legroom might be an issue. Zoom
DPA

Scientists in the Netherlands have introduced a molecule-sized car. Legroom might be an issue.

It's certainly no Porsche, but scientists at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands are still excited about their latest achievement: creating a "car" that's only a billionth of a meter long.

The nanometer-sized vehicle, introduced in the British journal Nature on Wednesday, is comprised of a miniscule frame with four rotary units, each no wider than a few atoms. In fact, the whole construction is 60,000 times thinner than a human hair, according to the AFP news agency.

The research team was able to propel the nanocar six billionths of a meter by firing electrons at it with a tunnelling electron microscope. The "electronic and vibrational excitation" of the jolts changes the way the atoms of the "wheels" interact with those on a copper surface, the reports says, propelling the car forward in a single direction. The only problem, it would seem, is getting all the wheels to turn in the same direction every time.

A Small Future

It might be tough to imagine the use of such a diminutive roadster. But nanotechnology is widely considered one of the most exciting fields of the 21st century, and the researchers view their design as "a starting point for the exploration of more sophisticated molecular mechanical systems with directionally controlled motion."

Utilizing materials at an atomic or molecular level -- "nano" comes from the Greek word for "dwarf" -- finds applications in everything from medicine and engineering to consumer products, such as sunscreen, ketchups and even powdered sugar.

cjc -- with wires

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