An international competition is coming up in Toulouse, France at the end of next month, but it's not a very big one. It's microscopic, in fact. Organized by CNRS (the National Center for Scientific Research), the Nanocar Race will see four "cars" each made up of about a hundred atoms, racing against one another on a -270 ºC (-454 ºF) gold track that's just 100 nanometers long – that's 0.0001 millimeters.
The event was first conceived in 2013, by CNRS senior researcher Christian Joachim and Prof. Gwénaël Rapenne from the Université Toulouse III - Paul Sabatier.
Of the nine teams that applied from around the world, four will ultimately have nanocars in the race – that's the maximum number that can be tracked simultaneously by CNRS' specially-adapted scanning tunnelling microscope, which has four tungsten scanning tips. By contrast, most such microscopes just have a single tip, and can only observe one item at a time.
And no, the cars won't have tiny windshields, doors and whatnot. Each one will look pretty "molecular," and will have to be assembled on the track. Propulsion will be provided by minute electrical pulses delivered by the microscope tips, although using those tips to physically push the cars is against the rules. Also, steering will be necessary, as there are two turns within the track.
The race starts on April 28th at CNRS's Centre d'élaboration de matériaux et d'études structurales (Center for materials development and structural studies), and will proceed for 36 hours. Teams have a maximum of six hours before the race starts, to clean the section of track that their car will be using. Should their car "crash" during the race, they'll be allowed to swap in a replacement.
So, what's the point?
Well, so-called "molecular machines" like the nanocars could one day be used in everything from targeted drug delivery within the body to the manufacture of microscopic electronic components. An event such as this is intended to foster innovation within the field, not unlike the manner in which advances in regular auto racing often trickle down to the world of consumer automobiles.
The race will be broadcast live on the YouTube Nanocar Race channel. In the meantime, there's more information in the video below.