Scientists are racing nanocars on a solid gold track

Scientists are set to engage in a frivolous race of single-molecule “nanocars” on, if you can believe it, a solid gold track. It’s the boldest show of academic elitism and greatest waste of taxpayer dollars since the duck penis thing. Oh wait, it’s actually the greatest thing of all time.

The whole thing is a bit of a lark, thought up by chemists Christian Joachim and Gwénaël Rapenne as a way to drum up interest in the more prosaic aspects of nanotechnology, if you can really call them that.

Each “car” is a single molecule of perhaps a few dozen atoms, arranged in such a way that the electrons fired from the tip of a scanning tunneling microscope will propel them forward. This is accomplished in different ways by different nanocars: one might enter a higher energy state by absorbing the electron and deform, scooting it down the track. Another might be stable enough to repel the electron and be in turn propelled by it. (No pushing your car with the tip itself, that’s cheating.)

Some superficially resemble cars, but no one’s sure if wheels work the same at that scale, and there sure aren’t any engines — although the basic idea of a chassis with axles seems to apply.

This is how one car would go, ideally, but no one is really sure.

The track is a 100-nanometer-long piece of polished pure gold, so chosen because it is highly nonreactive, allowing all kinds of elements and configurations in the contestants’ molecules. It will be kept in a vacuum and as close to absolute zero as they can get it, since individual molecules tend to blow around a bit under ordinary circumstances.

There are two turns, which makes the course rather advanced, considering these things have never even gone in a straight line before.

Some of the nanocar designs aiming to qualify.

This madness will all take place at the University of Toulouse, which has a four-headed STM, each head of which can drive one nanocar. So right now they’re running qualifiers to see which of six proposed designs from a variety of institutions will make it to the starting line.

No one really knows what will happen after that. The cars might disappear, break up or go the wrong way. Japanese racer hopeful Waka Nakanishi admitted part of the reason she’s participating is to get her molecule under the university’s high-quality STM and find out what it’ll do. Sure, why not?

Every zap provided by the STM will be followed by a scan of the track, and every hour these scans will be uploaded as an animation, allowing fans to follow along in about as real time as you can expect from this ridiculous endeavor.

Curious? I knew you would be. You can learn more at the project’s website or, if you speak French, in the video above. There’s even a BD!