[Image above] An illustration shows a nanocar design by scientists at Rice University. The first nanocars, invented at Rice, consisted of a chassis, two axles, and four wheels, all part of a single molecule. Credit: Tour Group; Rice University

Scientists are in the fast lane when it comes to driving development of the world’s tiniest super robots—also known as nanomachines. That’s because these tiny machines have the potential to do miraculous things on a macro scale, like carry necessary drugs to specific parts of the human body or aid cleanup of environmental disasters.

Now engineers are putting their best nanocars on the starting line for the first-ever NanoCar Race, which will be held October 2016 in Toulouse, France.

Nanocars from five teams will go head to head to compete for best time. Although this microscopic race won’t draw NASCAR-level crowds, the engineers participating will be able to watch the performance through sophisticated microscopes developed specifically for the event.

Teams competing in the race include engineers from Rice University (Houston, Texas), Ohio University (Athens, Ohio), Dresden University of Technology (Dresden, Germany), National Institute for Materials Science (Tsukuba, Japan), and Paul Sabatier University (Toulouse, France).

“A nanocar race is as you’d imagine a normal race, but the racetrack is the scale of a few nanometers and is constructed from single gold atoms on a gold surface,” Grant Simpson, an engineer from the University of Graz, Austria, who is collaborating with Rice University for the competition, explains in a video produced by the French National Center for Scientific Research, one of the event organizers.

Credit: Константин К via French National Center for Scientific Research; YouTube


“A nanocar is a single-molecule vehicle of 100 or so atoms that incorporates a chassis, axles, and freely rotating wheels. Each of the entries will be propelled across a custom-built gold surface by an electric current supplied by the tip of a scanning electron microscope. The track will be cold at 5 kelvin (–450°F) and in a vacuum,” according to a Rice University press release about the upcoming event.

James Tour, professor of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice, and his team built the world’s first nanocar more than 10 years ago. They have a new model in development for the race that will be driven by group members from Graz—and the two groups are working together to optimize the design.

“It’s challenging because, first of all, we have to design a car that can be manipulated on that specific surface,” Tour says in the release. “Then we have to figure out the driving techniques that are appropriate for that car. But we’ll be ready.”