Scientists have built a vehicle that can finally squeeze into the tightest parking spaces. Actually, being all but a billionth of a meter long and 60,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair, it can turn just about anything into a parking spot.
Officially the world's smallest vehicle, the four-wheeler is nothing more than a single molecule with four rotary units comprised of a few atoms attached, giving it mobility. And while it doesn't come with a built-in engine, researchers were able to figure out a means of propelling it forward. Using a scanning tunneling microscope, they gave it a blast of acceleration by sending a pulse of electrons. This works by altering the structure of the wheels and, as a result, causes the rotors to flop forward. But at a rate of 0.7 nanometers per rotation, it ain't no speed demon.
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There were numerous challenge with designing a car this small. A team of researchers at the University of Groningen, led by Ben Feringa, had to make the machine flexible enough to roll across dry surfaces, yet not with so many moving parts that it falls apart as moves around. Even the propulsion system is a delicate operation, with the shot of electrons aimed directly at the body's center in order to ensure each wheel is turned simultaneously with an equal amount of force. When that doesn't happen, the car drifts off course a bit.
The next step is to make the automobile a little more, for the lack of a better term, road ready. Currently the nano-sized vehicle can only be operated at cryogenic temperatures inside a vacuum. The researchers are experimenting with ways to enable it to operate at room temperature.
The researchers detailed their work in the journal Nature.
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