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World’s Smallest Submarine Is One Molecule In Size

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Researchers from Houston's Rice University have developed the smallest submarine ever invented, and it's so small, it could swim through your blood stream.

The incredibly fast machine is only 244 atoms in size, and so powerful, it can move through a fluid with molecules of about the same size—kind of like someone moving through a mosh pit of hundreds of people, all trying to knock you to the floor. (Note: I've done this at a Propagandhi concert. It hurts.)

A coauthor of the study explained it for the non-moshers out there: "This is akin to a person walking across a basketball court with 1,000 people throwing basketballs at him," says James Tour, a professor at Rice. "These are the fastest-moving molecules ever seen in [a] solution."

The submarine can move at a rate of about one inch per second, about a third as fast as a frog. And because of its size and speed, it could do incredible things if unleashed to the world of medicine. According to a statement from Rice, the team hopes that the submarine could carry drugs or related treatments.

The submarines are powered by UV light, which chemically changes the bond that holds the submarine's "propeller" to its body. This bond change moves the "propeller" a quarter rotation. The device then rests, then turns again. The process continues, pushing the submarine along in small starts as long as it is hit by light. One challenge, then, may be finding applications that will safely work while exposing the host to ultraviolet light.

This method of mobility has been likened to the bacterial flagellum, which powers mobile bacteria at incredible rates—so fast that, if it were human, it would be making 100-meter dashes in about five seconds, according to the National Institute of Health. The efficiency with which the flagella work hinges on its structure: the flagellum rotates on a tiny axis, rather than following a "track," the way the propeller of a boat would. The incredibility of this evolutionary development has made it a darling of intelligent design proponents, who claim science couldn't possibly explain this incredible dingy, so God must have made it. Our tiny submarine operates in a similar way, with a "propeller" that rotates on the same sort of axis, giving it incomparable mobility, speed, and ability to change direction.

Now, the researchers are taking the next step: seeing where and how the submarine can be used to better the world. The research is announced in the American Chemical Society's journal, Nano Letters, this month.

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