Nanocar Race: the world’s smallest car race

Attention motor racing fans, international competitions will be held in Toulouse on March 24 and 25, 2022. On the starting track, cars a few nanometers in size: molecular cars, “a million times smaller than an ant”clarifies Gwenael Rapinne, a member of the Toulouse team at the start of the competition.

For 24 hours, eight teams of researchers from around the world will compete in “nanocar” what they have developed. The team whose car travels the longest distance wins. An event that can be followed directly on the NanoCarRace YouTube channel and in the video below.

It all started with a joke…

“I wrote, for fun, that we were to organize a car race.” Christian Joachim, organizer of Nanocar Race II, recalls the context in which the competition was born in 2013: a joke noted in an article published in a scientific journal. The idea gained momentum, and after the CNRS competition to reward the best ideas for popularizing science, the first edition of the Nanocar Race was launched.

And this joke continues as the experience is updated. They thought from 2018, the start of the second edition will be given on March 24, 2022. Ability to update the rules and make some adjustments. “In the first issue, the smart guys tried to bend the rules to move forward, they played with the electric field, explains the organizer of the race. This year we introduced slalom to avoid this phenomenon.

To ensure that all teams comply with the conditions, they will need to provide images of their molecule for each action taken. “We want to see where she went.” This pattern-by-image rule should also allow us to understand what happens to each molecule, no matter how different it may be (wheels, legs, chassis, etc.).

Pilots in Toulouse, but there is no car on site

The eight participating teams will be assembled under the direction of the Center for Materials and Structural Research (Cemes) in Toulouse, but without molecular carriers. They will remain in the teams’ respective research labs and will be piloted remotely. “Our microscope is 300 meters away in another building. Each of the eight teams uses different microscopes that are remotely controlled from the same location.”– explains Gwenael Rapenne, who has the opportunity to compete almost at home.

These microscopes, known as scanning tunneling microscopes, are essential to the race. First, they create images: “The computer is told to maintain a constant electrical current between the microscope tip and the surface. When the tip is close to the object, the height must be adjusted to keep the current constant. And it is this difference that leads to the visualization of the object on the surface.”describes Henri-Pierre Jacot de Rouville, a chemist from the Strasbourg team.

But they have a different goal: to move the molecule forward. “They work like bumper cars. The bumper car is powered by a mesh at the top, allowing it to move forward. The tip is the equivalent of a vehicle power rod: you put on a molecule and we apply current to it.” , Explain Christian Joachim.

“Understanding why it’s progressing”

“There is scientific continuity, it’s not just entertainment,” I want to remind the organizer of the event. The first edition has already raised the bar. “The goal was to show that we can independently control four molecules on the same surface, which has never been done.” Technical excellence, which is reflected, in particular, in the development of a quantum computer. Another area concerned: molecular engines, that is, very small engines a few millimeters in size. But above all, the goal of researchers is to understand “why does it move forward without pushing the molecule.”

Whoever speaks of serious competition speaks of carefully selected teams. For Christian Joachim: “Very few people know how to make an F1 engine, even if they want to do it.” Here is the same requirement. Participants were selected according to the complexity of their project to leave only eight teams from around the world between the US, Japan or Europe.

Our molecule is a kind of fence: two wheels with a small platform in the middle.describe Henri-Pierre Jaco de Rouville. It is quite small (136 atoms), rigid, symmetrical and with a dipole. (the molecule then has two ends, two poles, because the electrons are unevenly distributed over the structure, NDRL). In general, most of the teams were in favor of having a dipole because it’s the easiest way to move the molecule forward.” Gwenael Rapenne, whose team has opted for a similar strategy, concludes: “This makes the polar molecule look like a small magnet.”

Communication between scientific disciplines in each team is essential to implement an effective strategy, as described by Henri-Pierre Jaco de Rouville. “We need chemists, automotive engineers to make molecules. You need a physicist, the equivalent of a pilot. Finally, theorists are needed to calculate one or more images of the molecule, because it can take on certain configurations and therefore its interpretation is not necessarily obvious.”

Human adventure above all else

Victory is far from the goal. Everyone agrees that this is primarily a human adventure and scientific competition. “We have strengthened our ties of cooperation and exchanged many ideas, comments by Gwenael Rapenne. For example, are wheels needed on a car at the molecular level? Not quite, we figured it out in the first race, thanks to the discussions between us.

For Henri-Pierre Jaco de Rouville, the history of molecular cars is still in its first chapter. He has big ambitions towards them:We are at the stage of the first automobile race in history, when the road from Paris to Rouen took almost 7 hours. The goal is not to stop there. You have to think about the Grand Prix, where the cars are very fast, or the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where endurance is tested.

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