Simanaitis Says

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HERE’S RACING that makes Formula 1 look low-tech. Nanocar racing is right up there, er… down there with the 1966 sci-fi flick Fantastic Voyage.

In Fantastic Voyage, a submarine with medical crew is miniaturized and injected into the blood stream of a scientist with a brain tumor. In truth, my principal memory of the flick isn’t the science, it’s Raquel Welch as Cora Peterson Grant, a scientist for the Combined Miniature Deterrent Forces.

You had to be there. And male.

But enough of inspiring cinema. These nano racers are described in the November 2016 issue of Focus, BBC’s fine monthly magazine of science and technology.

Scientists at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Toulouse, France, organized this racing event, one like no other ever held. The cars are on the nano-scale, one nanometer (1 nm) being 1/25,000 the thickness of a human hair. That is, they’re downright molecular in size.


This and the following images from BBC Focus, November 2016.

The nanocars compete on a track about 100 nm long, with two 45-degree corners. (And isn’t it just like race organizers to throw in a chicane to slow cars down?) The track is made of gold; this, for interesting reasons. First, gold is the least reactive of metals and, thus, the nanocar molecules won’t be attracted to it. Second, gold can be aligned molecularly flat, essential because, as BBC Focus notes, “when your car’s the size of a single molecule, even the smallest bump becomes a mountain.”


The track is about 100 nm in length with a challenging chicane.

Professor James Tour of Rice University is co-leader of one of six teams with nanocar entries, the production of which is akin to pharmaceutical material. He says, “… we don’t make one at a time, we make a trillion billion at a time.”


Nanocar production is even more exotic than that of Formula 1.

Part of the challenge is identifying one nanocar out of the batch. It’s a balance between producing too few or too many.


Entrants, as of November 2, 2016.

These particular nanocars are identified–and powered–by a Scanning Tunneling Microscope. Professor Tour explains, “What drives the cars for this race will be the electric field gradient induced by the tip of the STM. The tip moves and the nanocar follows the tip…. It’s akin to the way a balloon is drawn towards your hand if you build up a sufficient static charge.”

In fact, though initially scheduled for October 14, 2016, the event was postponed for STM optimization. Organizers say it’ll be broadcast live on the web. For the latest details, check out Nanocar Race.

The STM also intermittently monitors location of each car. BBC Focus notes that this iteration of image/drive/image/drive means that the race could take as long as 36 hours to complete.

As with the 24 hours of Le Mans, some might question the benefits of a 36-hour nanocar race. However, there are plenty: In the short term, the competition could lead to better nano-imaging technologies and manipulation of nano-scale objects. In the long term, such nano-machinery could be used in capturing energy or in atom-by-atom deconstruction of waste materials.

Or, maybe, in constructing a nano Raquel Welch. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016

2 comments on “NANOCAR RACING

  1. skip
    November 6, 2016

    And racing continues to improve the breed….

    • Bill Rabel
      November 6, 2016

      There’s no space for sponsors’ decals!

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