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Nanotechnology typically involves components built of individual atoms or molecules. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre and is about 80,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair.
Led by Professor David Leigh the team from Edinburgh have designed and built a molecule, known as a rotaxane, that can move and sort particles. It took three years of painstaking work to find a molecular form that could do this job.
Conceptually, the rotaxane can be thought of as a barbell with a carefully positioned lump on the bar that can be made to act as a one-way "gate" when light is shone on it.
Although best known for his work on electromagnetism, he also dreamed up the idea of Maxwell's Demon in which an imp seems to be able to sort gas molecules into separate chambers in defiance of the second law of thermodynamics.