Driving the molecular motor isn't trivially easy, though. To achieve what they wanted, the researchers had to use the metal tip of a low-temperature scanning tunneling electron microscope to provide the charge to a butyl methyl sulfide molecule placed on a copper surface.
Unsurprisingly, any practical application of the discovery is a long way away, but in the Tufts media release, Sykes imagined that it could be used to overcome the friction that takes place inside nano-tubes used (for example) in medical tests.
"At these small scales, friction of the fluid against the pipe walls increases, and covering the walls with motors may help drive the fluids along," he said.
The researchers had to drop the temperatures down to 5 degrees Kelvin, because at higher temperatures, the molecule spins too fast for measurement. Even at that temperature, the rotation ran at 50 per second. To prove that their observations weren't just showing random behaviour, the group had to track every rotation, counting 5,000 rotations for "every single data point" in the experiment.
Future work will include getting a better understanding of the small-scale interactions taking place, and study how energy could be transferred to other molecules.