Rice Vehicle First in Nanocar Race

Rice and partner University of Graz cross finish line with two-wheeled speedster

The Rice University and University of Graz team is in first place in the inaugural international Nanocar Race in Toulouse, France, April 28, finishing a 150-nanometer course — the width of two human hairs — in about one-and-a-half hours. (The allotted finish time is 30 hours.)

The team led by Rice chemist James Tour and Graz chemist Leonhard Grill deployed a two-wheeled vehicle with adamantane tires on its home track in Graz, Austria, achieving a speed of 95 nanometers per hour.

The Swiss Nano Dragster team is in second place, finishing the course five hours later.

An interviewer discussing the competition on YouTube with Tour and Grill said, “Of course, this race continues. We want to see if their car is really strong enough to resist 36 hours of electric volts and jolts.”

Because the scanning tunneling microscope track in Toulouse could only accommodate four cars, two of the six competing international teams — Ohio University and Rice-Graz — ran their vehicles on their home tracks and operated them remotely from the Toulouse headquarters.

The Rice-Graz car, called the Dipolar Racer, was designed by Tour and former Rice graduate student Victor Garcia-Lopez and raced by the Graz team, which included postdoctoral researcher and pilot Grant Simpson and undergraduate and co-pilot Philipp Petermeier.

The Dipolar Racer designed at Rice.

The Rice-Graz team won despite a handicap, Tour said. “We had to go 150 nanometers around two pylons instead of 100 nanometers since our car was so much faster,” he said. The race began at 4 a.m. Houston time, and the teams were delayed by a yellow flag for about an hour due to other teams’ crashed software, he said.

The cars were driven across a gold surface in a vacuum near absolute zero by electrons from the tips of microscopes in Toulouse and Ohio, but the Rice-Graz team got permission to use a silver track at Graz. “The gold surface was the surface of choice, so we tested it there, but it turns out it’s too fast,” Grill said. “It’s so fast, we can’t even image it.”

The team got permission from organizers to use the silver surface to slow its car down enough to see with the microscope, he said.

The purpose of the competition, according to organizers, was to push the science of how single molecules can be manipulated as they interact with surfaces.

The silver track under the microscope. Two Rice nanocars are in the blue circle at top. The lower car was the first to run the race, finishing in an hour-and-a-half. The top car was put through the course later, finishing in 2 hours. Click on the image for a larger version.

“This is so gratifying,” said Tour, whose lab has been working on nanocars since 1998. “We chose our fastest wheels and our strongest dipole so that it could be pulled by the electric field more efficiently. We gave it two (side-by-side) wheels to minimize interaction with the surface and to lower the molecular weight.

“We built in every possible design parameter that we could to optimize speed,” he said.

“This is the beginning of our ability to demonstrate nanoscale manipulation with control around obstacles and speed and will pave the way for much faster paces and eventually for carrying cargo and doing bottom-up assembly.

“It’s a great day for nanotechnology,” Tour said. “And a great day for Rice University and the University of Graz.”