James Tour's custom auto shop is no haven for grease monkeys.
Its walls are white, its equipment glistens, its "mechanics" are gunning for PhDs. And the cars? You need microscopes powerful enough to detect single atoms in order to see them.
Late last year, Dr. Tour and his Rice University lab unveiled the world's first nanocar chassis - an H-shaped molecule with wheels crafted like tiny soccer balls. Now, they've added a motor.
The ultimate goal: to build molecular machines that can mimic nature's ability to transport and assemble tiny building blocks of matter into ever-larger structures.
The project is one small piece of a globe-spanning research effort where "big" is defined as anything larger than 100-billionths of a meter (or about 1/800th the thickness of a human hair). At these scales, materials exhibit unique properties that scientists are trying to harness to build quantum computers; highly sensitive sensors for environmental and medical use; and light, rugged materials for a host of other applications. It's a technological trajectory in which the components become so small that extremely complex devices - say, a Star Trek-like tricorder - may not be too far away.
Biology provides the blueprint for Tour's nanocar work. Key chemicals called enzymes "zip things together. They're nature's little machines," he says.
So the challenge for scientists is to see if they can use small entities such as nanocars to move atoms back and forth predictably and build something, such as highly compact and powerful computer memory chips, Tour says. Eventually, he'd like to have lots of these vehicles "programmed to move back and forth to assemble much larger structures."
That vision moves far beyond products today that claim a nanotech pedigree. Last month, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., unveiled a new database for tracking consumer products that claim to use some form of nanotechnology - from tennis rackets and hockey sticks using new composite materials to computer chips and sunscreen. Forbes magazine has added a a list of Top 10 nanotech products to its annual set of listings.