Amazing Molecule: World’s Smallest Electric Motor


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E. Charles H. Sykes, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry at Tufts University in Massachusetts, is the senior author on a paper published September 4, 2011, in Nature Nanotechnology. In this paper, Dr. Sykes and his team describe their new development: a tiny motor composed of a single molecule, and measuring only one nanometer across. (A nanometer is used for measuring very tiny things like atoms and molecules – a single nanometer is only one billionth of a meter.)

Interview with E. Charles H. Sykes, Ph.D.

We had the opportunity to ask Dr. Sykes a few questions about this project. Questions and answers follow:

Decoded Science: Students at the high school level, all the way up to the doctoral level were involved with this project. How were the students chosen?

Dr. Sykes: We have initiatives in the Chemistry Department at Tufts University like the ARRAYS and CO-OP programmes that reach out to local high schools and inspire interest in science by creating opportunities for young scientists to participate in real world research. Our outreach coordinator Meredith Knight selected students with similar interests to join my research team. The high school students spent time during the summer and short periods during their school year coming to lab and working alongside graduate students to analyze the data.

Example of Chemistry Department Outreach Programmes:

Decoded Science: Could you provide an example of a task that may have been completed by a high school student?

Dr. Sykes: High school students interning on the project tracked the movements of the tiny molecular motors. Typical week-long experiments yielded data containing tens of thousands of rotational events and all had to be analyzed by computer and checked by hand.  At the colder temperature that the group used (-268C), the motor went through about 50 rotations per second, which were measured and counted. To demonstrate that the motor was being driven by the electricity provided and that the movements were not just random, the team had to track and analyze over one million rotations.

Decoded Science: Were the tasks accomplished by individual students, or as a group effort by a class?

Dr. Sykes: It was a team effort to track the movement of the tony molecular rotations. Including myself, there were nine people on the team involved in this research.

The team included:

  • Heather L. Tierney, Ph.D., a managing editor at the American Chemical Society who earned her doctorate at Tufts
  • Colin J. Murphy and April D. Jewell, both doctoral candidates in  chemistry at Tufts
  • Ashleigh E. Baber, Ph.D., a research fellow at Brookhaven National Laboratory who earned her doctorate at Tufts
  • Erin V. Iski, Ph.D., a research fellow at Argonne National Laboratory who earned her doctorate at Tufts
  • Allister F. McGuire, a chemistry major at Tufts
  • Harout Y. Khodaverdian, a 2011 graduate of Malden High School
  • Nikolai Klebanov, a 2010 graduate of Newton North High School, now a chemistry major at Tufts

Decoded Science:How long did the project take to complete?

A single human hair is 60,000 times the size of the molecule-motor. Photo by Harvard University’s Limin Tong

Dr. Sykes: We started the molecular rotor project in 2007. 

The Molecular Rotor Project

In essence, the Tufts University team discovered that by applying an electric charge to a butyl methyl sulfide molecule, and changing the molecule’s temperature, they could control the rotation of the molecule. The discovery that it is possible to make a tiny one-nanometer molecule spin faster by applying higher temperatures has applications in everything from medicine (nanobots anyone?) to computers and everything electronic. The many hours of tedious research that went into this project may have been agonizing, but the end result was well worth it: this is science at its best.

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