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News Release 09-080

"Fantastic Voyage" Not So Far-fetched

Studies yield clues to powering nano-sized machines

Graphic showing a single-molecule nano-vehicle.

Powering machines 5,000 times smaller than a human cell moves closer to reality.
Credit and Larger Version

April 23, 2009

View a video of real-time "predator-prey" behavior of silica spheres towards UV-illuminated silver chloride.

A new paper published in the May 2009 issue of the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States, Scientific American, asks readers to imagine producing vehicles so small they would be about the size of a molecule and powered by engines that run on sugar. To top it off, a penny would buy a million of them.

The concept is nearly unthinkable, but it's exactly the kind of thing occupying National Science Foundation supported researchers at Penn State and Rice universities.

For several years, Ayusman Sen, who heads Penn State's department of chemistry, and his colleague Thomas E. Mallouk, director of the Center for Nanoscale Science at Penn State, have investigated technologies that could realize these remarkable machines whose uses might include delivering medicine to specific tissue, accomplishing surgeries or communicating with the outside world from inside the human body.

Though researchers consistently have improved ways to build nano-machines, the stumbling block has been finding a way to power them. Shrinking energy producers--internal combustion engines, electric motors or jet engines--below millimeter dimensions is not an easy task, but researchers may be closer to a fantastic solution.

In the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage, scientists shrink a submarine to microscopic size and inject it into the blood stream of a brilliant scientist, who has a blood clot forming in his brain. The nano-sized surgeons then set out to remove the blood clot.

Today, researchers can steer nano-machines, use them to convey cargo, and guide them using electromagnetic forces or chemical interactions. All of this, they say, makes the world seen in Fantastic Voyage not so far-fetched.


Media Contacts
Bobbie Mixon, NSF, (703) 292-8070,

Program Contacts
Thomas P. Rieker, NSF, (703) 292-4914,

Principal Investigators
Ayusman Sen, Penn State University, (814) 863-2460,
Thomas E. Mallouk, Penn State University, (814) 863-9637,

Related Websites
How to Build Nanotech Motors - Scientific American:
The Sen Group - Supporting Information:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $626 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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Real-time predator-prey behavior of silica spheres towards UV-illuminated silver chloride.
View Video
Real-time predator-prey behavior of silica spheres towards UV-illuminated silver chloride.
Credit and Larger Version

Graphic of a nano-car with four carbon-based wheels rolling on axles made of linked carbon atoms.
Nano-car has no engine under the hood, but rolls on wheels 5,000 times smaller than a human cell.
Credit and Larger Version

Photomicrograph showing a Salmonella bacterium, an analogue for powering of nano-machines.
Salmonella bacterium provides an example of how nano-machines could be powered.
Credit and Larger Version

Two different particles engage in phototaxis predator-prey movement.
Particle motion driven by light provides a theory for independent movement of nano-machines.
Credit and Larger Version