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Nanotechnology Pistons

Don Noid and Bobby Sumpter, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The development of nanotechnology will include building atomic-scale machines able to move and sort substances molecule by molecule. Many of these so-called nanomachines will likely contain fluids that flow through pipes (to and from very small chemical reaction chambers) or fluids confined to small volumes (inside nano-hydraulic pistons, for example). The flow of helium (a light, non-reactive gas) through a simple pipe composed of a graphite-like material has been simulated on a computer through novel molecular dynamics techniques and the results computer-animated.

The animations show a variety of features of fluid flow that are not readily apparent from the raw computer data. As the fluid atoms, shown in green, flow through the pipe, they bounce off the pipe wall and cause it to flex. In some simulations, the helium gas carries along a comparatively heavy buckyball molecule, which has a cage-like structure. Because of its tight fit, the buckyball can cause the pipe to bulge as it passes through. If the pipe flexes or bulges, parts of the nanomachine attached to it may vibrate. When designing nanomachines, the effects of this vibration must be accounted for. Inspection of computer animations can illuminate these and other crucial issues in the design of nanomachines.