Spring 2016

Small Achievement

Meet the architects of the world’s tiniest electric motor

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Nikolai Klebanov’s work helped a Tufts research team land in the Guinness book. Photo: John Soares

Nikolai Klebanov, E14, M18, was a bright high school kid from Newton, Massachusetts, trying to make himself useful when he emailed Charles Sykes, an associate professor of chemistry at Tufts, looking for a summer job. Sykes said yes.

“I had no idea you could do that,” Klebanov says with surprise. Next thing he knew, the enterprising teenager was part of a team in Sykes’ lab intent on creating the world’s smallest electric motor—one the size of a molecule. The effort succeeded, and by September 2011 had made the Guinness Book of World Records in that infinitesimal category.

Klebanov came to the lab with certain advantages. Born in Moscow to parents who were both electrical engineers, he is at ease in areas hard to imagine for most of us. “The definition of a motor is something that turns in one direction more than another,” he says at the start—in other words, a motion that is controlled rather than random. In Sykes’ lab, the butyl methyl sulphide molecule’s spinning on a copper plate was achieved through an electric charge at the tip of a scanning tunneling microscope.

Klebanov sees his professional future most likely being devoted to medical engineering, where miniature mobile devices of all kinds may be used to whisk medicines to targeted sites throughout the body, delivering keener treatment efficiencies along the way.
–Bruce Morgan

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