Scientists have downsized the electric motor to the molecular level. That is, they’ve created an electrical motor that’s the size of a nanometer. About 60,000 of them equal the width of a human hair.
The molecular motor is a breakthrough that could lead to new types of electrical circuitry, according to Charles Sykes, an associate professor of chemistry at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
Other teams have created molecular motors â€” really molecules that are controlled by an outside force â€” that are powered by light and chemical reactions. Until now, however, an electrically driven molecular motor hasn’t been demonstrated.
The use of electricity, Sykes explained to me, allows for the control of a single molecular motor. The light and chemical powered motors are also molecular, but the chemical or light controls billions of molecules at once.
“We can use electricity to drive one molecule and the one sitting right next to it, say two nanometers away, remains off,” he said.
This precision control comes from the use of what’s called a scanning tunneling microscope. “Instead of light, it uses electrons (to see). It has a very sharp tip, basically the sharpest needle in the world,” Sykes said.
In their experiment, they used the tip of the microscope to send an electrical current through a simple molecule â€” butyl methyl sulfide, which gives brandy its distinctive smell â€” that was placed on a copper surface (orange in the image at right), which directs the molecule to rotate one way or another.
“We can spin the thing because we have the sharp needle supplying the electricity,” he said. Left- and right-handed versions of the molecule spin clockwise and counterclockwise.
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