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World's Smallest Nano-Motor Powered by Electricity for First Time in History

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Now this is not our typical green scientific breakthrough, but it may one day change the way we consume energy and improve electric motors for good. This is about a team from the University of Tufts, Mass., led by Charles Sykes, who invented the world’s smallest electric motor ever, measuring only about 1 (one) nanometer in diameter.

You read right – only one molecule makes up this electric motor, breaking the previous record of 200 nanometers, already registered by Guiness World Records. For comparison, the average human hair is 60,000 times thicker than the motor that the Tufts team invented.

Previous approaches towards nano-motors had been pretty inefficient and limited, and ran with light or chemicals. This one is powered the classic way, with electricity.

“The excitement is in the demonstration that you can provide electricity to a single molecule and get it to do something that’s not just random,” says Sykes, an associate professor of chemistry in the School of Arts and Sciences.

The molecule that they used is made of a sulfur base and two arms composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms. This “contraption” has been cooled down to 5 Kelvin – minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit for them to properly observe its movement. The tip of a scanning tunneling microscope has been used to power the motor with electricity and make it spin one way or the other.

A frequency of 50 rotations per second has been obtained in the experiment. Sykes says that the motor would have worked even at higher temperatures, but the motor’s speed would have been tremendous and unmeasurable.

He quoted only a few applications for this technology, among which would be nanoscale sensors, nanoelectromechanical systems, medical applications of all sorts.

“We will try and learn all we can about how these molecular motors work,” he says. That includes using different molecules, power sources and ways of attaching the molecules to surfaces. The goal of those efforts will be “to understand the interactions and improve the motion,” he notes. He adds that he and his colleagues “will also study how the energy can be transferred to other molecules and make arrays of tiny cogs or gears on surfaces.”

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