Winning Formula M

Whoever thought that Bernie Ecclestone’s departure from Formula One would be the end of an era had absolutely zero perspective on nanotechnology: there is plenty of room at the bottom, as nanotech’s earliest and, to this day, greatest visionary Richard Feynman declared at Caltech in 1959 – at a time when not only many members of today’s six nano-racing teams but also their academic mentors were not even born yet.

For there is an emergent dimension of molecular racing, and its first event took place at Toulouse, at a Grand Prix race track created by CEMES, the Centre d’Élaboration de Matériaux et d’Etudes Structurales of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique this April 28-29, 2017. It is not an experimental playing field for silly geeks who never outgrew their dad’s garage: just like video games produced considerable collateral benefits for the “real world” (think drone technologies, or remote surgery) the purpose of molecular machines is to eventually perform useful work on an atomic scale. Nanorobots will be able to manipulate individual atoms or molecules, manufacture amazing new materials or transport substances in a heretofore unknown targeted fashion.

The six race cars starting in Toulouse were 1-2 nm in size and had to be moved through minimal electric impulses on their own motion along a defined track of 150 nm that included handling two chicanes with a 120-degree angle. It took the winning team 90 minutes, temporarily reaching speeds of up to 300 nm per hour. That was an amazing speed in light of the fact that the organizers had calculated 18 hours rather than 90 minutes as a performance limit.

The winner was neither Mercedes nor Ferrari but a joint venture between Rice University, Houston, TX and the University of Graz, Austria. On the two racing days, they moved their cars by scanning-tunneling microscope over a distance of 1,000 nm or 1 micrometer. The runner-up mustered only about one-sixth of their speed. Division of labor turned out useful: while the team at Rice produced the molecules, the team at Graz focused on “training,” i.e., examining them by scanning-tunneling microscope, observing their motion, and “driving” them in the race. While the Rice chemists benefited from decades of experience in producing an exceptionally suited molecule, Graz advanced manipulation of mechanics by optimizing the interaction between molecule and “road” surface. Among the sponsors of competing teams were also three major automotive manufacturers: Peugeot, Toyota and Volkswagen. The rules permitted molecular race cars to be propelled either (i) using the tunnel electrons passing through it; or (ii) light; or (iii) nano-magnetic effects. Molecule cars were allowed to be manipulated mechanically to reach the 2 gold ad-atoms of the starting line. While it may take a while for nano-race cars to command significant TV following and commercial ratings, part of their fascination is that the action is, indeed, observable and will pave the way for infinitely greater sophistication as time for those developments might shrink at a speed comparable to miniaturization itself.

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