World’s smallest electric motor made from a single molecule

Chemists at Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences have developed the world’s first single molecule electric motor, a development that may potentially create a new class of devices that could be used in applications ranging from medicine to engineering. In research published online September 4 in Nature Nanotechnology, the Tufts team reports an electric motor that measures a mere 1 nanometer across, groundbreaking work considering that the current world record is a 200 nanometer motor. A single strand of human hair is about 60,000 nanometers wide.

According to E. Charles H. Sykes, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry at Tufts and senior author on the paper, the team plans to submit the Tufts-built electric motor to Guinness World Records.

“There has been significant progress in the construction of molecular motors powered by light and by chemical reactions, but this is the first time that electrically-driven molecular motors have been demonstrated, despite a few theoretical proposals,” says Sykes. “We have been able to show that you can provide electricity to a single molecule and get it to do something that is not just random.”

Sykes and his colleagues were able to control a molecular motor with electricity by using a state of the art, low-temperature scanning tunneling microscope (LT-STM), one of about only 100 in the United States. The LT-STM uses electrons instead of light to “see” molecules.

The team used the metal tip on the microscope to provide an electrical charge to a butyl methyl sulfide molecule that had been placed on a conductive copper surface. This sulfur-containing molecule had carbon and hydrogen atoms radiating off to form what looked like two arms, with four carbons on one side and one on the other. These carbon chains were free to rotate around the sulfur-copper bond.

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