Water found to be an ideal lubricant for nanomachines

September 1, 2013
A molecular motor lubricated by water. This molecule consists of a ring that can move over a wire. If the molecule absorbs light the ring moves from one end of the wire to the other. When this happens light energy is converted into kinetic energy (similar to a piston in a petrol engine). By adding a small amount of water to the solution around the motor, the ring moves twice as quickly. Credit: FOM

Researchers from the University of Amsterdam have discovered that machines just one molecule in size move far quicker if you add a 'lubricant' to their surroundings. To their surprise, water proved to be the best lubricant by far. The research will be published on 1 September 2013 in Nature Chemistry.

FOM PhD researcher Matthijs Panman and his colleagues determined the of two : minuscule machines just one single molecule in size. They examined a molecular wheel and a molecular motor driven by light. Both machines are made up of just a few dozen and are about one thousandth millionth of a metre in size.

Lubricated motion

The researchers used advanced physics techniques (nuclear spin resonance and ultrafast lasers) to examine the molecular machines. During the research the machines were dissolved in an (acetonitrile). The researchers discovered that if a small quantity of water was added to the solvent, the molecular machines moved much faster. Three percent water proved to be enough '' to make the movement more than twice as quick.

The researchers added other substances as well but the less similar to water the substance added was, the less good its lubricating effect. Butanol, which in terms of properties is in between water and lubricating oil actually made the movement slower.

Broken bonds

It is not yet entirely clear why water is such a good lubricant for the nanomachines investigated. The lubricating effect is probably associated with the (weak bonds) between the groups of atoms that form the two parts of these machines that move with respect to each other.

These hydrogen bonds need to temporarily break open to allow the machine to move. That does not happen easily: normally the two disengaged parts of a broken hydrogen bond quickly 'grasp' each other again, as a result of which the machine does not easily start moving. If water is present, however, the two halves of the bond can form new hydrogen bonds with the water molecules instead of with each other. As a result of this the hydrogen bonds between the moving parts of the machine remain broken for longer – the internal friction of the molecular machine is reduced and the speed increases.

Water have a small size, high motility and easily form hydrogen bonds. Therefore they are probably the ideal candidate for speeding up the machine.

Chance discovery

The experiments began when the researchers noticed that the molecular motors moved with slightly different speeds, dependent on the bottle of solvent used in the experiment. Soon, that turned out to be the case due to traces of water in the solvent. If you open a bottle of solvent several times then a small quantity of water from the air gradually dissolves in it. Some bottles contained slightly more water than others and this gave rise to the difference in speed. By adding more water the researchers managed to enhance the effect.

The discovery is important for the design and optimisation of new nanomachines. The potential applications of such machines range from molecular computers to surfaces with switchable properties. In addition, hydrogen bonds also occur in natural, biological molecular machines where water probably has a lubricating effect as well.

Explore further: Scientists confirm original tetrahedral model of the molecular structure of water

Related Stories

Molecular motors: Power much less than expected?

August 28, 2013

An innovative measurement method was used at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw for estimating power generated by motors of single molecule in size, comprising a few dozens of ...

New catalyst dives into water to produce hydrogen

August 14, 2013

(Phys.org) —Few catalysts are energy efficient, highly active, stable, and operate in water, but a nickel-based catalyst designed at the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory quickly ...

Producing hydrogen from water with carbon / charcoal powder

August 28, 2013

In the latest advance in efforts to find an inexpensive way to make hydrogen from ordinary water—one of the keys to the much-discussed "hydrogen economy"—scientists are reporting that powder from high-grade charcoal and ...

Quantum model helps solve mysteries of water

June 4, 2013

A research team from the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the University of Edinburgh and IBM's TJ Watson Research Center has revealed a major breakthrough in the modelling of water that could shed light on its mysterious ...

Recommended for you

Researchers report new technique for de-icing surfaces

September 21, 2017

Scientists and engineers have been waging a quiet but determined battle against the build-up of ice on infrastructure. A thin coating of ice on solar panels can wreak havoc with their ability to generate electricity. Thin ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.3 / 5 (10) Sep 01, 2013
Nature herself made this "chance discovery" about 160 million generations ago, covering Earth with "nanomachines."
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 01, 2013
@Nik - Nature has been using this for a lot more than 160 million generations.
Prokaryotes as well as eukaryotes use this, and for several billion years bacteria have achieved multiple generations per year so it is should be well over 100 times that number of generations.

Bacteria can achieve several dozen generations per day, but are unlikely to sustain that rate for years on end. At one generation per day the number of generations would exceed a trillion (10^12).
1.4 / 5 (10) Sep 01, 2013
RealScience: 160,000,000 X 23 years = 3.7 billion years, the age of prokaryotes. Using human generations is only natural, for my fellow human readers.
1 / 5 (11) Sep 01, 2013
Maybe it's because water is a battery.
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 02, 2013
RealScience: 160,000,000 X 23 years = 3.7 billion years, the age of prokaryotes. Using human generations is only natural, for my fellow human readers.

But why would you measure prokaryote generations by the average time of human reproduction?
1 / 5 (1) Sep 02, 2013
@Nik - I'd bet that most of your fellow human readers think of such time scales in terms of years rather than in terms of human generations, especially since humans weren't around for the whole time.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 02, 2013
@cantdrive: Trolling gets you nowhere, especially when it is obvious you haven't read the article.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.