A rack-and-pinion device at the molecular scale


Molecular machines, and in particular molecular motors with synthetic molecular structures and fuelled by external light, voltage or chemical conversions, have recently been reported1,2,3,4,5,6. Most of these experiments are carried out in solution with a large ensemble of molecules and without access to one molecule at a time, a key point for future use of single molecular machines with an atomic scale precision. Therefore, to experiment on a single molecule-machine, this molecule has to be adsorbed on a surface, imaged and manipulated with the tip of a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM)7,8,9,10. A few experiments of this type have described molecular mechanisms in which a rotational movement of a single molecule is involved. However, until now, only uncontrolled rotations11,12,13 or indirect signatures14,15 of a rotation have been reported. In this work, we present a molecular rack-and-pinion device for which an STM tip drives a single pinion molecule at low temperature. The pinion is a 1.8-nm-diameter molecule functioning as a six-toothed wheel interlocked at the edge of a self-assembled molecular island acting as a rack. We monitor the rotation of the pinion molecule tooth by tooth along the rack by a chemical tag attached to one of its cogs.

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Figure 1: A molecular rack and pinion.
Figure 2: A localized resonant-tunnelling state working as a marker.
Figure 3: A rack-and-pinion device at the molecular scale.
Figure 4: Mechanical behaviour of the system.


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We gratefully acknowledge partial funding by the Volkswagen Foundation Project ‘Single molecule synthesis’ and the European Projects NANOMAN and AMMIST.

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F.C., L.G. and F.M. were responsible for the experimental STM work, A.G. and C.J. for the molecular design and A.G. for the chemical synthesis; S.S. and C.J. were in charge of the theory and of the STM image calculation and interpretation and K.H.R. was responsible for the planning of the experiments.

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Correspondence to Christian Joachim.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Chiaravalloti, F., Gross, L., Rieder, K. et al. A rack-and-pinion device at the molecular scale. Nature Mater 6, 30–33 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/nmat1802

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