Letter | Published:

Electrically driven directional motion of a four-wheeled molecule on a metal surface

Nature volume 479, pages 208211 (10 November 2011) | Download Citation


Propelling single molecules in a controlled manner along an unmodified surface remains extremely challenging because it requires molecules that can use light, chemical or electrical energy to modulate their interaction with the surface in a way that generates motion. Nature’s motor proteins1,2 have mastered the art of converting conformational changes into directed motion, and have inspired the design of artificial systems3 such as DNA walkers4,5 and light- and redox-driven molecular motors6,7,8,9,10,11. But although controlled movement of single molecules along a surface has been reported12,13,14,15,16, the molecules in these examples act as passive elements that either diffuse along a preferential direction with equal probability for forward and backward movement or are dragged by an STM tip. Here we present a molecule with four functional units—our previously reported rotary motors6,8,17—that undergo continuous and defined conformational changes upon sequential electronic and vibrational excitation. Scanning tunnelling microscopy confirms that activation of the conformational changes of the rotors through inelastic electron tunnelling propels the molecule unidirectionally across a Cu(111) surface. The system can be adapted to follow either linear or random surface trajectories or to remain stationary, by tuning the chirality of the individual motor units. Our design provides a starting point for the exploration of more sophisticated molecular mechanical systems with directionally controlled motion.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    & Molecular motors. Nature 422, 759–765 (2003)

  2. 2.

    & Motor proteins at work for nanotechnology. Science 317, 333–336 (2007)

  3. 3.

    , , & Autonomous movement and self-assembly. Angew. Chem. Int. Edn Engl. 41, 652–654 (2002)

  4. 4.

    et al. Molecular robots guided by prescriptive landscapes. Nature 465, 206–210 (2010)

  5. 5.

    , , & A proximity-based programmable DNA nanoscale assembly line. Nature 465, 202–205 (2010)

  6. 6.

    & Making molecular machines work. Nature Nanotechnol. 1, 25–35 (2006)

  7. 7.

    , & Synthetic molecular motors and mechanical machines. Angew. Chem. Int. Edn Engl. 46, 72–191 (2007)

  8. 8.

    , , , & Light-driven molecular rotor. Nature 401, 152–155 (1999)

  9. 9.

    , , & Artificial molecular machines. Angew. Chem. Int. Edn Engl. 39, 3348–3391 (2000)

  10. 10.

    et al. Unidirectional molecular motor on a gold surface. Nature 437, 1337–1340 (2005)

  11. 11.

    et al. A 160-kilobit molecular electronic memory patterned at 1011 bits per square centimeter. Nature 445, 414–417 (2007)

  12. 12.

    , , , & Directional control in thermally driven single-molecule nanocars. Nano Lett. 5, 2330–2334 (2005)

  13. 13.

    et al. A molecule carrier. Science 315, 1391–1393 (2007)

  14. 14.

    & Nanoscale science of single molecules using local probes. Science 283, 1683–1688 (1999)

  15. 15.

    et al. Rolling a single molecular wheel at the atomic scale. Nature Nanotechnol. 2, 95–98 (2007)

  16. 16.

    et al. A rack-and-pinion device at the molecular scale. Nature Mater. 6, 30–33 (2007)

  17. 17.

    et al. Nanomotor rotates microscale objects. Nature 440, 163 (2006)

  18. 18.

    , & Manipulating Kondo temperature via single molecule switching. Nano Lett. 6, 820–823 (2006)

  19. 19.

    , & Mechanisms of reversible conformational transitions in a single molecule. Phys. Rev. Lett. 93, 196806 (2004)

  20. 20.

    et al. Picometer-scale electronic control of molecular dynamics inside a single molecule. Science 308, 1000–1003 (2005)

  21. 21.

    et al. Adsorption and switching properties of azobenzene derivatives on different noble metal surfaces: Au(111), Cu(111), and Au(100). J. Phys. Chem. C 112, 10509–10514 (2008)

  22. 22.

    , , , & Observation of cis-2-butene molecule on Pd(110) by cryogenic STM: site determination using tunneling-current-induced rotation. Surf. Sci. 536, L403–L407 (2003)

  23. 23.

    & An electron induced two-dimensional switch made of azobenzene derivatives anchored in supramolecular assemblies. Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys. 12, 6035–6044 (2010)

  24. 24.

    , , & Adsorption of acenes on flat and vicinal Cu(111) surfaces: step induced formation of lateral order. J. Chem. Phys. 114, 10123–10130 (2001)

  25. 25.

    & Action spectroscopy for single-molecule motion induced by vibrational excitation with a scanning tunneling microscope. Phys. Rev. B 75, 041403 (2007)

  26. 26.

    , , , & Switching the chirality of a single adsorbate. Angew. Chem. Int. Edn Engl. 48, 4065–4068 (2009)

  27. 27.

    Current-driven dynamics in molecular-scale devices. J. Phys. Condens. Matter 15, R521,–doi:10.1088/0953-8984/15/14/201 (2003)

  28. 28.

    , & An atomic switch realized with the scanning tunnelling microscope. Nature 352, 600–603 (1991)

  29. 29.

    , , & Single-molecule chemistry and analysis: mode-specific dehydrogenation of adsorbed propene by inelastic electron tunneling. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 133, 5689–5691 (2011)

Download references


This research was supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO-CW) (B.L.F. and T.K. through a VENI grant), the Swiss Secretary for Education and Research and the Swiss National Science Foundation (K.-H.E. and M.P.), and the European Research Council (ERC advanced grant 227897 to B.L.F.).

Author information

Author notes

    • Tibor Kudernac
    •  & Nathalie Katsonis

    Present address: MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology, University of Twente, PO Box 217, 7500 AE, Enschede, The Netherlands.

    • Tibor Kudernac
    •  & Nopporn Ruangsupapichat

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. Centre for Systems Chemistry, Stratingh Institute for Chemistry, University of Groningen, Nijenborgh 4, 9747 AG Groningen, The Netherlands

    • Tibor Kudernac
    • , Beatriz Maciá
    • , Nathalie Katsonis
    • , Syuzanna R. Harutyunyan
    •  & Ben L. Feringa
  2. Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials, University of Groningen, Nijenborgh 4, 9747 AG Groningen, The Netherlands

    • Tibor Kudernac
    • , Nopporn Ruangsupapichat
    • , Nathalie Katsonis
    •  & Ben L. Feringa
  3. Nanoscale Materials Science, Empa, Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, Überlandstrasse 129, CH-8600 Dübendorf, Switzerland

    • Manfred Parschau
    •  & Karl-Heinz Ernst
  4. Department of Chemistry, University Zurich, Winterthurerstrasse 190, CH-8057 Zürich, Switzerland

    • Karl-Heinz Ernst


  1. Search for Tibor Kudernac in:

  2. Search for Nopporn Ruangsupapichat in:

  3. Search for Manfred Parschau in:

  4. Search for Beatriz Maciá in:

  5. Search for Nathalie Katsonis in:

  6. Search for Syuzanna R. Harutyunyan in:

  7. Search for Karl-Heinz Ernst in:

  8. Search for Ben L. Feringa in:


N.R., B.M., S.R.H. and B.L.F. designed the four-wheeled molecule and N.R. conducted its synthesis and characterization. T.K., M.P., N.K. and K.-H.E. designed the STM experiments and contributed to their interpretation. T.K. and M.P. performed the STM experiments at Empa. T.K., K.-H.E. and B.L.F. wrote the manuscript. S.R.H., K.-H.E. and B.L.F. conceived and guided the research. All authors discussed the results and implications and commented on the manuscript at all stages.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Syuzanna R. Harutyunyan or Karl-Heinz Ernst or Ben L. Feringa.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Information comprising Supplementary Sections 1-5 (see Contents), which include a Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Text and Data, Supplementary Figures 1-10 with legends and full legends for Supplementary Movies 1-4.


  1. 1.

    Supplementary Movie 1

    In this movie we see preferentially linear movement of the meso-isomer of the four-wheeled molecule after excitation - see Supplementary Information for full legend.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Movie 2

    In this movie we see changes in STM contrast induced by helix inversion of the motor units of the four-wheeled molecule after vibrational excitation - see Supplementary Information for full legend.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Movie 3

    In this movie we see the random movement of one enantiomer of the racemic version of the four-wheeled molecule after excitation - see Supplementary Information for full legend.

  4. 4.

    Supplementary Movie 4

    In this movie we see a molecular model for the anticipated linear propulsion of the meso-form of the four-wheeled molecule - see Supplementary Information for full legend.

About this article

Publication history






Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.