A team of researchers at Rice University, led by Rice lab chemist James Tour, have developed what they are calling “nanosubmarines”, which are powered by ultraviolet light and microscopic in size.
Considered a potential breakthrough in nanotechnology, the nanosubmarines, through utilizing “molecular motors”, are capable of traveling through solution at what the researchers say are breakneck speeds.
While the technology is still in its early stages of development, the nanosubmarines each consist of merely one molecule with 244 atoms.
Their ultraviolet light-powered motors run at more than 1 million RPM, engaging a tail-like propeller that moves the subs forward at a rate of 18 nanometers per revolution.
While it may not sound like much, that kind of speed translates to a breakneck speed considering the scale, at a pace of just under 1 inch per second.
“These are the fastest-moving molecules ever seen in solution,” Tour told Rice University News.
“This is akin to a person walking across a basketball court with 1,000 people throwing basketballs at him,” Tour added.
Rice University News explained how the molecular motors work:
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.
The most obvious application for the nanosubmarines is helping delivery targeted medical therapies through human blood but that is a long way off considering the subs cannot be steered yet and are still in the early stages of development.
“This is the first step, and we’ve proven the concept. Now we need to explore opportunities and potential applications,” lead author on the researchers’ paper Victor García-López said.