Meet the world’s smallest monster trucks

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Check out the world’s smallest monster truck. Called the Ohio Bobcat Nanowagon, its dimensions are about equal to the width of a strand of DNA. Oh, and a chemical curiosity hides under its hood.

It’s been constructed from just five molecules. The pipsqueak is only about 3.5 nanometers long and 2.5 wide. Still, it was the heftiest contender in the first-ever nanocar race earlier this year. (There, it took home the bronze.) Perhaps more interesting was the surprise researchers made while building these itsy-bitsy racecars.

Many broke as soon as scientists tried attaching them to a racetrack. Their broken bits tended to look like two-wheeled hoverboards.

“It seems to be easier to break the chassis than to remove the wheel,” notes Eric Masson. That proved “very surprising,” says this car’s co-developer. Chemical bonds link atoms in the car’s frame. The type of bond holding them together typically is thought to be stronger than the type that attach its wheels.

Masson is a chemist at Ohio University in Athens. He and his colleagues are not sure why their Bobcat Nanowagons are more likely to snap in half than to lose a wheel. But they are investigating. Explaining this quirk could help scientists better understand the operations of molecular machines. A number of such nano-devices are now under development. They could be used to seek and destroy cancer cells, or even deliver drugs to specific cells of the body.

Masson offered details of his nano-racer August 23 in a news conference, here, at the American Chemical Society fall national meeting.

Power Words

atom     The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.

bond     (in chemistry) A semi-permanent attachment between atoms — or groups of atoms — in a molecule. It’s formed by an attractive force between the participating atoms. Once bonded, the atoms will work as a unit. To separate the component atoms, energy must be supplied to the molecule as heat or some other type of radiation.

cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

chassis     The frame of a vehicle that supports its working parts, including its wheels.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

chemical bonds     Attractive forces between atoms that are strong enough to make the linked elements function as a single unit. Some of the attractive forces are weak, some are very strong. All bonds appear to link atoms through a sharing of — or an attempt to share — electrons.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

DNA     (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

molecule     An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).

nano    A prefix indicating a billionth. In the metric system of measurements, it’s often used as an abbreviation to refer to objects that are a billionth of a meter long or in diameter.