A light-activated automatic molecular machine

This “nanomachine”, containing a self-assembling molecular motor, has been developed by the Department of Chemistry in Bologna University

September 2015

A light-activated automatic molecular machine. This “nanomachine”, containing a self-assembling molecular motor, has been developed by the Department of Chemistry in Bologna University. IMA Lab

Its name is Leap – from Light Energy Automatic Pump – and it consists of a new nanoscale system which can continuously and automatically convert light energy from a constant source into mechanical work. Its basic functional principles are very similar to those of the biological motors which regulate the transport of substances inside cells or the contraction of muscles.
This is the first example of an artificial molecular pump driven by light, and it is extremely simple and therefore adaptable for various uses. Up until now, the artificial molecular motors which have been created have had very sophisticated structures, have not been able to exploit their energy sources in a continuous and autonomous way, and have not been able to perform work.

‘Leap’ has leaped over these difficulties. Once the light is turned on, the device functions without any need for other external intervention, just as, once started, a combustion engine will continue to work as long as it has fuel. Unlike the combustion engine, however, Leap uses a renewable energy (light) and generates no waste products. The research group’s next target is to insert the nanomotor in a membrane separating two compartments and study its effective capacity to ‘pump’ molecules from one compartment to the other ‘fueled’ by the action of light.

The fundamental concept inspiring this research is the extension – on a nanometric or molecular level – of the concepts of ‘devices’ or ‘machines’ which we are so familiar with in our everyday lives. In carrying out their research, the chemical scientists operate like engineers, designing components and assembling them to create devices and machines, but on a scale a billion times smaller, since the ‘pieces’ they are made of are molecules.

The Leap system has been designed, created and tested by a group of researchers in the “G.Ciamician” Department of Chemistry in Bologna University, coordinate by Alberto Credi, and their work has been published in the prestigious science magazine Nature Nanotechnology.
The development of artificial nanomotors is extremely important both for improving our knowledge of how biological nanomotors function and for constructing new generation ultra-miniaturized devices capable of actively intervening in cell mechanisms.

In future, this kind of system could be used to cure diseases or malfunctions by preventing or repairing biological damage.