Molecular Submarine
Loïc Samuel/Rice University

In the nearly 400 years since the first submarine was invented, these underwater machines have become incredibly sophisticated. They’re armed and they’re really stealthy. We’re even planning on sending subs to oceans on distant moons. Trippy.

But now, a submarine is going where no submarine has gone before. To the molecular level. In a paper published this month in NanoLetters, researchers announced that they’ve invented a submarine so small that it’s made out of a single molecule.

The submarine is made of just 244 atoms, and can move through fluids with molecules of approximately the same size all around it.

“This is akin to a person walking across a basketball court with 1,000 people throwing basketballs at him,” co-author James Tour said in a statement. Several years ago, Tour built nanocars, extremely tiny cars with rolling wheels.

Not only can the tiny sub move through that difficult solution, it can also move relatively quickly. One inch per second isn’t especially fast for us, but for a single molecule, it’s really quick. The submarine is powered by UV light hitting the submarine’s motors, which whip the submarine through the water, similar to this bacterium’s flagella:

The scientists can’t steer the submarine yet, but they hope that one day the nanosub could be used to carry tiny items like medical treatments through liquids.