Meet the world’s smallest monster trucks

One problem: Chemical quirks may sideline some of these nano-vehicles in the breakdown lane

This nanoscale vehicle is dubbed the Ohio Bobcat Nanowagon. It consists of four circular “wheel” molecules fastened to an H-shaped molecular frame.

E. MASSON

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Check out the world’s smallest monster truck. Called the Ohio Bobcat Nanowagon, its dimensions are about equal to the width of a strand of DNA. Oh, and a chemical curiosity hides under its hood.

It’s been constructed from just five molecules. The pipsqueak is only about 3.5 nanometers long and 2.5 wide. Still, it was the heftiest contender in the first-ever nanocar race earlier this year. (There, it took home the bronze.) Perhaps more interesting was the surprise researchers made while building these itsy-bitsy racecars.

Many broke as soon as scientists tried attaching them to a racetrack. Their broken bits tended to look like two-wheeled hoverboards.

“It seems to be easier to break the chassis than to remove the wheel,” notes Eric Masson. That proved “very surprising,” says this car’s co-developer. Chemical bonds link atoms in the car’s frame. The type of bond holding them together typically is thought to be stronger than the type that attach its wheels.

Masson is a chemist at Ohio University in Athens. He and his colleagues are not sure why their Bobcat Nanowagons are more likely to snap in half than to lose a wheel. But they are investigating. Explaining this quirk could help scientists better understand the operations of molecular machines. A number of such nano-devices are now under development. They could be used to seek and destroy cancer cells, or even deliver drugs to specific cells of the body.

Masson offered details of his nano-racer August 23 in a news conference, here, at the American Chemical Society fall national meeting.

Maria Temming is the staff reporter for physical sciences, covering everything from chemistry to computer science and cosmology. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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