Space History Photo: Fullerene Nanogears
Fullerene Nanogears with multiple teeth being researched for use in space.
Credit: NASA.

In this historical photo from the U.S. space agency, the Numerical Aerospace Simulation Systems Division (NAS) of the NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California is conducting research into molecular-sized devices known as Nanotechnology. This photograph, taken on Apr. 1, 1997, depicts two "Fullerene Nano-gears" with multiple teeth.

The hope is that one day, products can be constructed made of thousands of tiny machines that could self-repair and adapt to the environment in which they exist.

Researchers have simulated attaching benzyne molecules to the outside of a nanotube to form gear teeth. Nanotubes are molecular-sized pipes made of carbon atoms. To "drive" the gears, the supercomputer simulated a laser that served as a motor. The laser creates an electric field around the nanotube. A positively charged atom is placed on one side of the nanotube, and a negatively charged atom on the other side. The electric field drags the nanotube around like a shaft turning.

Jie Han, Al Globus, Richard Jaffe and Glenn Deardorff are the authors of a technical paper detailing this technology which appears in The Journal of Nanotechnology.

Each weekday, SPACE.com looks back at the history of spaceflight through photos (archive).