The concept of a 'machine' - a mechanical or electrical device that transmits or modifies energy to perform a certain task - can be extended to the nano-world. On the nanoscale, the nanomachine components would be atomic or molecular structures each designed to perform a specific task which, all taken together, would result in a complex function. However, these nanomachines can not be built by just further miniaturizing machine blueprints from the macro-world. Functional nanomachinery will need to take into account the quantum effects that dominate the behavior of matter at the nanoscale, affecting the optical, electrical and magnetic behavior of materials. Scientists in The Netherlands are now reporting how an atomic scale mechanical device consisting of two moving parts, each composed of only two atoms can be controlled by an external electrical signal, while being stable and providing a variety of functional modes. They jokingly refer to it as playing atomic pinball, since the two moving parts resemble the flippers in a pinball machine - unfortunately they haven't got a ball yet to play with.
For nanoelectronics applications like single-electron devices to become practical, everyday items, they need to move from the highly individual and customized fabrication process typically found in laboratories to an automated, high-throughput and industrial-scale production environment. The reason this hasn't happened yet is that the various nanoscale pattern definition techniques used today - such as e-beam lithography, mechanically controllable break junctions, electromigration, electrodeposition, nanoscale oxidation, and scanning tunneling microscopy - generally are not suitable for large-scale parallel processing. The fabrication of single-electron devices requires nanoscale geometrical arrangement of device components, that is, source and drain electrodes and Coulomb islands. Developing methods to fabricate nanoscale devices in large numbers at a time has been one of the major efforts of the nanotechnology community. A new study now demonstrates that this can be done with complete parallel processing using CMOS-compatible processes and materials. Furthermore, these single-electron devices can operate at room temperature, an essential requirement for practical implementations.
Borrowing from nature's micro- and nanoscale propulsion systems, nanotechnology researchers have successfully used motor proteins to transport nanosized cargo in molecular sorting and nano-assembly devices. In so-called gliding assays, surface-attached motors propel cytoskeletal filaments, which in turn transport a cargo. However, cargo and motors both attach to the filament lattice and will affect each other. While an effect of cargo loading on transport speed has been described before, it has never been explained very well. To study this effect, scientists in Germany have observed single kinesin-1 molecules on streptavidin coated microtubules. They found that individual kinesin-1 motors frequently stopped upon encounters with attached streptavidin molecules. This work helps to understand the interactions of kinesin-1 and obstacles on the microtubule surface. An interesting, possibly even more important side result is that this understanding will not only help to optimize transport assays, balancing speed and cargo-loading, but can be used as a novel method for the detection of proteins as well.
The motor proteins of the cytoskeleton accomplish nanotransport tasks by moving 'cargo' along microtubules that are about 25 nm wide but can grow up to 1,000 times as long. Nanotechnology engineers are fascinated by this transport mechanism and several efforts are underway in various labs to unravel and, researchers hope, eventually copy nature's engineering feat. A particularly promising setup consists of surface-attached linear motor proteins that drive the motion of cytoskeletal filaments. Some researchers expect that artificial molecular transport systems which utilize microtubules motility will be an alternative to pressure-driven or electrokinetic flow-based microfluidic devices. Researchers in Germany describe a novel method to characterize the rotational movement of cytoskeletal filaments gliding over motor-coated substrate surfaces. This technique allows exploring the detailed paths that motors take on cytoskeletal filaments. This is also important in understanding situations of heavy intracellular traffic, where motors might have to switch lanes.
A fast-growing body of nanotechnology research is dedicated to nanoscale motors and molecular machinery. The results of these studies are spectacular: well-designed molecules or supramolecules show various movements upon exposure to various stimuli, such as molecular shuttles, molecular elevators and molecular motors. So far, however, nobody has been able to directly observe the movements of these molecular machines and utilize the mechanical work done by them. Now, an international group of researchers have succeeded in amplifying the minuscule change in structures at a molecular level caused by an external stimulus (light) to a macroscopic change through a cooperative effect of liquid crystals. Using liquid-crystalline elastomers (LCEs) ? unique materials having both properties of liquid crystals (LCs) and elastomers ? the scientists have successfully developed new photomechanical devices, including the first light-driven plastic motor. In other words, with this novel material the energy from light can be directly converted into mechanical work without the aid of batteries, electric wires, or gears.
The concept of a 'machine' - a mechanical or electrical device that transmits or modifies energy to perform a certain task - can be extended to the nano world as well. On the nanoscale, the nanomachine components would be molecular structures each designed to perform a specific task which, all taken together, would result in a complex function. Nanoscientists have already built molecular motors, wheels, and gears for powering nanomachines. The ability to control nanoscale motors, more specifically, to control the motion of molecular components of such motors, doesn't only involve acceleration and movement but, equally important, deceleration and stopping. So far, the development of a practical braking system for nanomotors remains a challenge. Researchers in Taiwan now have reported development of a light-driven molecular brake that could provide on-demand stopping power for futuristic nanotechnology machines.
One of the many fascinating concepts in nanotechnology is the vision of molecular electronics where tomorrow's engineers might use individual molecules to perform the functions in an electronic circuit that are performed by semiconductor devices today. This is just another example of scientists taking a cue from nature's playbook, where essentially all electronic processes, from photosynthesis to signal transduction, occur in molecular structures. The basic science on which molecular electronics technology would be built is now unfolding but researchers are still struggling with the most basic requirements for molecular electronics, for instance, how to precisely position individual molecules on a surface or how to reliably measure the resistance of a single molecule. A tremendous amount of painstaking work goes into developing the kind of ultraprecise and ultrasensitive instruments that are required to develop electronics at the nanoscale. A recent example is a new device for measuring the conductance values of single-molecule junctions which are covalently bound to two electrodes.
The catalytic conversion of chemical to mechanical energy is ubiquitous in biology, powering such important and diverse processes as cell division, skeletal muscle movement, protein synthesis, and transport of cargo within cells. Catalytic 'engines' will be key components of active micron- and sub-micron scale systems for controlled movement, particle assembly, and separations. A few days ago we took a look at catalytic nanomotors - sophisticated molecular-size biomotors have evolved in nature - and described an example where researchers supercharged their nanomotors by inserting carbon nanotubes into the gold and platinum nanowires (Speeding up catalytic nanomotors with carbon nanotubes). Today we show an example where catalytic nanomotors can, in principle, be tethered or coupled to other objects to act as the engines of nanoscale assemblies. Additionally, an object that moves by generating a continuous surface force in a fluid can, in principle, be used to pump the fluid by the same catalytic mechanism. Thus, by immobilizing these nanomotors, a group of scientists have developed micro/nanofluidic pumps that transduce energy catalytically.