NanoCar Race, the first-ever race of molecule-cars

Yes, this is where the race will take place. © Cyril Fresillon-Cemes-CNRS

A very special automobile competition will take place on April 28, 2017. After the race of autonomous cars, we now move on to a completely different level, the scale of molecules and atoms: the nanometric scale.

The CEMES laboratory of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) has organized the first international race of nano-cars, composed of only a hundred atoms, in Toulouse (south-western France). This prowess was made possible thanks to a unique microscope with “quantum tunnelling”, or STM (Scanning Tunneling Microscope). In an ultra-vacuum chamber cooled to -269°C to make the molecules easier to manipulate, steering through micro-electric impulses at the end of a needle 30,000 times thinner than a strand of hair, the microscope will use this “quantum tunnelling” phenomenon to move the nano-cars forward.

A STM-propelled nano-car. © Cemes-CNRS

Four international teams will participate in this 36-hour race, including a French team from the University of Toulouse. Gwénaël Rapenne, French team leader and designer of the French nano-car, tells Makery: “For now we’re quite stressed, because the organizational side is very heavy and the teams have started to arrive. This event should be a moment of celebration for research, a topic that has been completely forgotten during the current electoral campaign.”

Introduction to NanoCar Race (CNRS production):

The racetrack is also very special: the four tracks are set on a thin 8mm diameter pellet made of pure gold. The gold surface was chosen for the race because most nano-cars establish few chemical bonds with this surface, whatever their chemical composition. The track of each competitor will be defined between 2 chevrons comprising 3 straight lines of 20nm, 30nm and 20nm respectively, separated by a 45° right turn and a 45° left turn, for a total length of about 100nm.

How can we watch the race if we can barely see the pellet? © Hubert Raguet-Cemes-CNRS

Even if these cars are microscopic, there are still risks of “accidents”. It is possible that the small electrical impulses modify the lines of the gold’s electrostatic field to attract the nano-cars to the point of the needle and lure them out of the viewing field of the scientists’ control screen. In this case, the teams will be allowed to recover one of the cars at the start of the race. However, if a team breaks its tungsten tip, it will be disqualified. The winning team will be the one whose molecule-car crosses its finish line first or ends up the farthest on its track at the end of the 36 hours.

We asked Gwénaël Rapenne if this race could be the first of a new discipline: “We tried to include the category Nano-car next to Formula 1, Formula 3000, Indy car, etc., and Christian Joachim (director of the race), with the support of Peugeot, wrote to the FIA (International Automobile Federation) but has received no response…”

Follow the livestream of the race on Friday, April 28 (or on Youtube and Facebook)

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