What is a nanomachine

Nanoscale devices that can move and push upon other machines or parts. Most biological systems, for instance you and I, are comprised of billions of nanomachines. For instance, our muscle cells act in ways that are similar to macro-scale machine behavior. Within our cells, molecules perform a very intricate manipulation of atoms/other molecules that help our cells replicate and/or heal. Even bacteria have nanoscale motors within them that they use to move around.

The nanomachines that I am interested in building are at an early stage of development. When you look at them, they would resemble the simplest type of machines that you would find at the large scale. For instance, the simpler types of pieces that are put together to build a more complex machine such as bolts, nuts, springs, and structural components. Something with a complex geometry, such as an automobile engine or a robot, will take decades to build at the nanoscale.

There is ongoing work that aims to use carbon nanotubes (tubes that are several atoms in diameter to hundreds ofatoms in diameter) to make small-scale machines. Researchers have discovered that these tubes may be used to make bearings similar to those that enable a bicycle wheel rotate. Bearings are one of the fundamental things that you need in order to build machines that move and so engineers are trying to use carbon nanotubes in this way. Scientists and engineers are just getting to the point where they are starting to integrate these small-scale parts in order to build simple nanoscale machines, such as a very small shifting device on a bicycle. Most of these shifting devices rely primarily upon the function of a mechanism, called a 4-bar linkage that shifts the chain between sprockets. Building a shifting device at the nanoscale requires 5 to 10 years of research and trial and error. More complex nanoscale machines, such as robotic grippers, will probably take 10 to 20 years or more.

My group grows the carbon nanotubes and we use simulations to help us understand how to use these tubes to engineer simple machines, for instance the shifter as previously described.

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