Researchers in Singapore have advanced the science of nanotechnology by becoming the first in the world to invent a molecular gear of only 1.2 nm in size whose rotation can be deliberately controlled. This achievement was published on June 14 in Nature Materials.

The gear is made of carbon compounds and can freely rotate around a central axis. Scientists from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (ASTAR) Institute of Materials Research and Engineering, led by Christian Joachim, can control the rotation of the molecular gear using a Scanning Tunneling Microscope. It’s the smallest molecular gear yet made, and since its rotation is controlled and not random, scientists are calling it a break-through in nanotechnology.

Researchers are able to turn the gear to nine different and stable positions in either direction. The development could lead to the production of more complex machinery.

In an ASTAR news release,  Joachim says, “Making a gear the size of a few atoms is one thing, but being able to deliberately control its motions and actions is something else altogether. What we’ve done at IMRE is to create a truly complete working gear that will be the fundamental piece in creating more complex molecular machines that are no bigger than a grain of sand.”

Joachim and his team discovered that the control the gear position  by manipulating the electrical connection between the molecule and the tip of a STM while it was “pinned” one of the molecule’s axis.

Also in the ASTAR release, executive director of IMRE, Lim Khiang Wee says, “Christian [Joachim] and his team’s discovery shows that it may one day be possible to create and manipulate molecular-level machines. Such machines may, for example, walk on DNA tracks in the future to deliver therapeutics to heal and cure.”