Friday, October 21, 2005

Cool science story for 10/21

The world’s smallest car

What's the point? Nanotrucks, of course.

Eventually the researchers want to build tiny trucks that could carry atoms and molecules around in miniature factories.

"We'd eventually like to move objects and do work in a controlled fashion on the molecular scale, and these vehicles are great test beds for that," said James Tour, a Rice University research who co-led the work. "They're helping us learn the ground rules."

The setup will be detailed in an upcoming issue of the journal Nano Letters.

The scientists had to use "scanning tunneling microscopy" to see the thing and prove that it rolls like a car.

"It's fairly easy to build nanoscale objects that slide around on a surface," said Tour's colleague Kevin Kelly. "Proving that we were rolling – not slipping and sliding – was one of the most difficult parts of this project."

So just how do you make a nanocar go?

At room temperature, strong electrical bonds hold the buckyball wheels tightly against the gold, but heating to about 200 degrees Celsius frees them to roll.

This will never sell in South Austin until they engineer a gun rack onto the device.

I am torn about nanotechnology. On the one hand, things like this are way cool. 4 nanometers across is 40 Angstroms. This thing is smaller than a lot of protein molecules, which form most of the “nanomachines” that run our cells. Enzymes tend to be a lot more sophisticated, but then they’ve had a long time to reach their current state of refinement, not to mention a better Engineer. This sort of tech leads to the possibility of making completely new kinds of materials and solid-state devices, assembled atom-by-atom with minimal imperfections.

On the other hand, I’ve seen way too many science fiction stories where these little dudes eventually become our replacements. The whole idea is a teeny (no pun intended) bit creepy. Luckily for us, “Eventually the researchers want to build tiny trucks.” If they succeed with that, the Teamsters will enforce sufficient union control that the little guys should prove no threat. It’s one thing for nanobots to challenge and defeat the military–industrial complex; it’s quite another to take on the Union.