November 16, 2015

Rice makes light-driven nanosubmarines

Rice University scientists have created light-driven, single-molecule submersibles that
contain just 244 atoms. (Illustration by Loïc Samuel/Rice University)

(November 16, 2015)  Speedy single-molecule submersibles are a first

Though they’re not quite ready for boarding a lá “Fantastic Voyage,” nanoscale submarines created at Rice University are proving themselves seaworthy.

Each of the single-molecule, 244-atom submersibles built in the Rice lab of chemist James Tour has a motor powered by ultraviolet light. With each full revolution, the motor’s tail-like propeller moves the sub forward 18 nanometers.

And with the motors running at more than a million RPM, that translates into speed. Though the sub’s top speed amounts to less than 1 inch per second, Tour said that’s a breakneck pace on the molecular scale.

A chemical schematic shows the design of single-molecule nanosubmersibles created
at Rice University. The sub’s fluorescent pontoons are blue; the motor is red.
(Illustration by Victor García-López/Rice University)

“These are the fastest-moving molecules ever seen in solution,” he said.

Expressed in a different way, the researchers reported this month in the American Chemical Society journal Nano Letters that their light-driven nanosubmersibles show an “enhancement in diffusion” of 26 percent. That means the subs diffuse, or spread out, much faster than they already do due to Brownian motion, the random way particles spread in a solution.

While they can’t be steered yet, the study proves molecular motors are powerful enough to drive the sub-10-nanometer subs through solutions of moving molecules of about the same size.

“This is akin to a person walking across a basketball court with 1,000 people throwing basketballs at him,” Tour said.

Rice graduate student Victor García-López holds a vial with millions of single-molecule
nanosubmersibles. The nanosubs consist of 244 atoms and have motors that turn
when activated by ultraviolet light. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Tour’s group has extensive experience with molecular machines. A decade ago, his lab introduced the world to nanocars, single-molecule cars with four wheels, axles and independent suspensions that could be “driven” across a surface.

Tour said many scientists have created microscopic machines with motors over the years, but most have either used or generated toxic chemicals. He said a motor that was conceived in the last decade by a group in the Netherlands proved suitable for Rice’s submersibles, which were produced in a 20-step chemical synthesis.

“These motors are well-known and used for different things,” said lead author and Rice graduate student Victor García-López. “But we were the first ones to propose they can be used to propel nanocars and now submersibles.”

The motors, which operate more like a bacteria’s flagellum than a propeller, complete each revolution in four steps. When excited by light, the double bond that holds the rotor to the body becomes a single bond, allowing it to rotate a quarter step. As the motor seeks to return to a lower energy state, it jumps adjacent atoms for another quarter turn. The process repeats as long as the light is on.

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