Monday, September 28, 2009


Catalytic engines enable tiny swimmers to harness fuel from their environment and overcome the weird physics of the microscopic world.

Imagine that we could make cars, aircraft and submarines as small as bacteria or molecules. Microscopic robotic surgeons, injected in the body, could locate and neutralize the causes of disease—for example, the plaque inside arteries or the protein deposits that may cause Alzheimer’s disease. And nanomachines— robots having features and components at the nanometer scale—could penetrate the steel beams of bridges or the wings of airplanes, fixing invisible cracks before they propagate and cause catastrophic failures.

In recent years chemists have created an array of remarkable molecular-scale structures that could become parts of minute machines. James Tour and his co-workers at Rice University, for instance, have synthesized a molecularscale car that features as wheels four buckyballs (carbon molecules shaped like soccer balls), 5,000 times as small as a human cell.

But look under the hood of the nanocar, and you will not find an engine. Tour’s nanocars so far move only insofar as they are jostled by random collisions with the molecules around them, a process known as Brownian motion. This is the biggest current problem with molecular machines: we know how to build them, but we still do not know how to power them.

At the scales of living cells or smaller, that task poses some unique challenges. Air and water feel as thick as molasses, and Brownian motion militates against forcing molecules to move in precise ways. In such conditions, nanoscale versions of motors such as those that power cars or hair dryers—assuming that we knew how to build them that small—could never even start.

Nature, in contrast, provides many examples of nanomotors. To see the things they can do, one need only look at a living cell. The cell uses nanoengines to change its shape, push apart its chromosomes as it divides, construct proteins, engulf nutrients, shuttle chemicals around, and so on. All these motors, as well as those that power muscle contractions and the corkscrew motion of bacterial flagella, are based on the same principle: they convert chemical energy— usually stored as adenosine triphosphate, or ATP—into mechanical energy. And all exploit catalysts, compounds able to facilitate chemical reactions such as the breakdown of ATP. Researchers are now making exciting progress toward building artificial nanomotors by applying similar principles.

In 2004 we were part of a team at Pennsylvania State University that developed simple
nanomotors that catalytically con vert the energy stored in fuel molecules into motion. We took inspiration from a considerably larger catalytic motor reported in 2002 by Rustem Ismagilov and George Whitesides, both at Harvard University. The Harvard team had found that centimeter-scale “boats” with catalytic platinum strips on their stern would spontaneously move on the surface of a tank of water and hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). The platinum promoted the breakup of H2O2 into oxygen and water, and bubbles of oxygen formed that seemed to push the boats ahead by recoil, the way the exhaust coming out the back of a rocket gives it forward thrust.

Key Concepts
• Nanotechnology promises futuristic applications such as microscopic robots that assemble other machines or travel inside the body to deliver drugs or do microsurgery.

• These machines will face some unique physics. At small scales, fluids appear as viscous as molasses, and Brownian motion makes everything incessantly shake.

• Taking inspiration from the biological motors of living cells, chemists are learning how to power microsize and nanosize machines with catalytic reactions.

Source of Information : Scientific American(2009-05)

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