Scientists from the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) have managed to direct the self-assembly of rod-shaped molecules into rotors only few nanometers in size. The tiny systems serve the study of forces that act on molecules on surfaces and in cage-like structures.
When the researchers added further molecular building blocks, the rods spontaneously gathered, typically in groups of three, in a honeycomb cell while neighboring cells remained empty. The chummy molecules must have had a reason for organizing themselves in threesomes. Under a scanning tunneling microscope the scientists were able to recognize why. The three molecules oriented themselves in such a way that the nitrogen ends each faced a phenyl-ring hydrogen atom. This triple-bladed rotor arrangement is so energetically advantageous that the molecules maintain this structure even when thermal energy drives it to rotation.
Because the honeycomb-cell is not round, but hexagonal, there are two different positions for the rotors that can be distinguished as a result of the interactions between the outer nitrogen atoms and the hydrogen atoms of the cell wall. Furthermore, the three molecules arrange in a clockwise and a counter-clockwise manner. In experiments at various carefully controlled temperatures the physicists were able to “freeze” all four states and examine them closely. They could thus determine the energy of these thresholds from the temperature at which the rotation resumed.
“We hope that in future we will be able to extend these simple mechanical models to optical or electronic switching,” says Professor Johannes Barth. “We can set a specific cell size, we can specifically bring in further molecules and study their interaction with the surface and the cell wall. These self-organizing structures hold enormous potential.”