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Thursday, 10 November 2011

Lightest Car Ever Made Should Be Easy To Park

In recent years, cars have suffered something called "model bloat", wherein each new generation of a model gets longer, wider and heavier as more safety features and creature comforts appear. Happily though, the last couple of years have seem most makers fight against this in various ways, partly to improve their cars' efficiency, and in some cases also to improve the driving experience by making them less cumbersome. Leading the charge, it seems, is a group of Dutch scientists, who have created what is undoubtedly the smallest and lightest car in motoring history. That is, if you consider it to be a car at all...

This concept vehicle doesn't have a name, seeing as it was made by scientists and not a car company, so I'll call it the Twente Electron, because the lead author on the scientific paper about it - Dr. Tibor Kudernac - is a chemist at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, and it is propelled by electrons jumping into it from the tip of a "scanning tunnelling microscope". Beats lithuim-ion batteries, I guess. Part of its lightness is in the monocoque chassis, as amazingly, the whole car is actually made of one piece, with the integrated wheels moving the Twente Electron forwards by changing shape when the electrons hit the car. This level of lightweight engineering should make it very exciting to drive - especially given the instant torque of any electric car - but most of us will never know, because headroom could prove to be an issue, partly because of that very narrow-looking chassis, but mostly - and this should explain its unusual appearance - because it's actually a molecule. Even Richard Hammond would thus struggle to get inside it.

Everything I've said about it so far is true. It is powered by electrons hitting it, at which point the "molecular rotors" at each corner change shape as they absorb said electrons. It's designed to be a demonstration of "bottom-up" nanotechnology, building up from a single, carefully-designed molecule that does what naturally occurring protein-based molecular motors do (such as contracting muscles, for example), although applications for a molecular car are still something for the relatively distant future, according to Dr. Kudernac. The wheels, as you can see in the image below, are actually not very wheel-like, as they are flat and rotate to move the "car" forward like a kind of paddleboat-cum-quadbike.

Like all concept cars, then, this display of technology is not designed to be "hitting the road" any time soon, and hopefully when it does, they'll have sorted out the performance (and, er, headroom), as 0-60 is currently impossible unless it's attached to something that's travelling that fast anyway. In fact, ten shots of electricity is only enough for it to move 6 nanometres forward. That's 0.000006 mm, or six billionths of a metre. Imagine the standing quarter-mile time...

The other slight catch with the Twente Electron is that it only works when it's cold, and by cold, I mean freezing. And by freezing, I mean -266°C, less than 10°C off Absolute Zero, so that's their next challenge, because you can't very well send nano-cars inside people's bodies to repair something or transport an antibody in if you have to flash-freeze them to death first and put them in a 'high vacuum' for it to move.

The molecular machines would have to be built for any purpose found for them, which could take some redesigning, but Dr. Kudernac doesn't mind. "There are ways to play around. That's what we chemists do - we try to design molecules for particular purposes, and I don't see any fundamental limitations." Personally, I look forward to more Twente models. I don't suppose you could do a four-seat one next, guys? Or a one-make racing series? That would be cool. Very cool if it still has to be in very-sub-zero temperatures. *rimshot*

Source: BBC News

P.S. Regarding the quarter mile thing, there wasn't actually any mention of speed, but if my maths are correct, at the current rate it would take 67,056,000,000 shots of electrons just to get it that far!

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