Move over NASCAR, here comes NanoCar

The smallest cars ever made compete on the world's shortest racetrack.
The NanoCar Race, a world first, took place at CNRS in Toulouse, France on April 28-29, 2017. (CNRS)

On April 28, 2017, teams from six countries gathered at a gold racetrack in the south of France for the tiniest race in history. Teams were given 30 hours to traverse a 100-nanometer-long course, which seems like a ridiculously long time to travel such a short distance.

But this is no small feat if your car is made of a few dozen atoms. Nanocars are microscopic, molecular vehicles assembled by chemists, not mechanics, and driven using a scanning tunneling microscope.

The scanning tunneling microscope at the Centre for Materials and Structural Studies (CEMES) in Toulouse, France, where the world's first nanocar race was held on April 28, 2017. (Cyril FRESILLON/CEMES/CNRS Photothèque)

The race itself was for fun, but the technology behind it could be important. Scientists are currently working on creating nano-machines that could help with drug delivery or making artificial muscle. Nanocars are a great test-bed for developing technology like molecule-sized switches, pumps and propellers.

The race took over four years to come together and was coordinated by Dr. Christian Joachim of the National Center for Scientific Research in Toulouse, France.

Joining Quirks & Quarks to talk about the race is Dr. Grant Simpson, the driver for the Austrian-American team, which was one of two winning teams in Friday's race. He's a postdoctoral researcher in scanning tunneling microscopy at the University of Graz in Austria.