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Molecular Motor Crossing The Frontier Of Classical To Quantum Tunneling Motion

Conversion of undirected energy input into directed motion on molecular scales is the basis for controlled movements in living organisms. Molecular Motor Crossing The Frontier Of Classical To Quantum Tunneling Motion


In this context, fundamental insights can be obtained by investigating artificial molecular machines under well-defined conditions.

We devised the currently smallest, atomically precise molecular machine, whose rotor (C2H2) consists of just four atoms and whose functioning we have tracked employing scanning tunneling microscopy (STM). Unlike all other reported surface-anchored rotors, ours is characterized by an extremely high degree of directionality which is independent of STM-tip condition or position, therefore solely defined by the chiral support. Owing to its ultrasmall size, our rotor’s operation crosses the well-established classical to an unanticipated quantum tunneling kinetic regime without loss in directionality.


The reliability by which molecular motor proteins convert undirected energy input into directed motion or transport has inspired the design of innumerable artificial molecular motors. We have realized and investigated an artificial molecular motor applying scanning tunneling microscopy (STM), which consists of a single acetylene (C2H2) rotor anchored to a chiral atomic cluster provided by a PdGa(111) surface that acts as a stator. By breaking spatial inversion symmetry, the stator defines the unique sense of rotation. While thermally activated motion is nondirected, inelastic electron tunneling triggers rotations, where the degree of directionality depends on the magnitude of the STM bias voltage. Below 17 K and 30-mV bias voltage, a constant rotation frequency is observed which bears the fundamental characteristics of quantum tunneling. The concomitantly high directionality, exceeding 97%, implicates the combination of quantum and nonequilibrium processes in this regime, being the hallmark of macroscopic quantum tunneling. The acetylene on PdGa(111) motor therefore pushes molecular machines to their extreme limits, not just in terms of size, but also regarding structural precision, degree of directionality, and cross-over from classical motion to quantum tunneling. This ultrasmall motor thus opens the possibility to investigate in operando effects and origins of energy dissipation during tunneling events, and, ultimately, energy harvesting at the atomic scales.

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