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Think your Smart Car is small? Try a microscopic nanocar!

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Finally, a car that's easy to parallel park! These awesome nanocars (and nanotrucks!) with actual moving parts are made from large molecular building blocks, including wheels made from buckyballs. Although they are far too small to see with the naked eye, researchers hope to eventually use them to transport "nanocargo" (atoms and molecules) across surfaces. We, on the other hand, hope that a Nanocar Indy500 is not far away!

Synthesis of single-molecule nanocars. "The drive to miniaturize devices has led to a variety of molecular machines inspired by macroscopic counterparts such as molecular motors, switches, shuttles, turnstiles, barrows, elevators, and nanovehicles. Such nanomachines are designed for controlled mechanical motion and the transport of nanocargo. As researchers miniaturize devices, they can consider two complementary approaches: (1) the "top-down" approach, which reduces the size of macroscopic objects to reach an equivalent microscopic entity using photolithography and related techniques and (2) the "bottom-up" approach, which builds functional microscopic or nanoscopic entities from molecular building blocks. The top-down approach, extensively used by the semiconductor industry, is nearing its scaling limits. On the other hand, the bottom-up approach takes advantage of the self-assembly of smaller molecules into larger networks by exploiting typically weak molecular interactions. But self-assembly alone will not permit complex assembly. Using nanomachines, we hope to eventually consider complex, enzyme-like directed assembly. With that ultimate goal, we are currently exploring the control of nanomachines that would provide a basis for the future bottom-up construction of complex systems. This Account describes the synthesis of a class of molecular machines that resemble macroscopic vehicles. We designed these so-called nanocars for study at the single-molecule level by scanning probe microscopy (SPM). The vehicles have a chassis connected to wheel-terminated axles and convert energy inputs such as heat, electric fields, or light into controlled motion on a surface, ultimately leading to transport of nanocargo. At first, we used C(60) fullerenes as wheels, which allowed the demonstration of a directional rolling mechanism of a nanocar on a gold surface by STM. However, because of the low solubility of the fullerene nanocars and the incompatibility of fullerenes with photochemical processes, we developed new p-carborane- and ruthenium-based wheels with greater solubility in organic solvents. Although fullerene wheels must be attached in the final synthetic step, p-carborane- and ruthenium-based wheels do not inhibit organometallic coupling reactions, which allows a more convergent synthesis of molecular machines. We also prepared functional nanotrucks for the transport of atoms and molecules, as well as self-assembling nanocars and nanotrains. Although engineering challenges such as movement over long distance and non-atomically flat surfaces remain, the greatest current research challenge is imaging. The detailed study of nanocars requires complementary single molecule imaging techniques such as STM, AFM, TEM, or single-molecule fluorescence microscopy. Further developments in engineering and synthesis could lead to enzyme-like manipulation and assembly of atoms and small molecules in nonbiological environments."

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