Nobel Prize in Chemistry Awarded to 3 Scientists

October 5, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

nobel prize winners
From left to right: Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, Bernard L. Feringa
Photo credit: Illustration: Niklas Elmehed. Copyright: Nobel Media AB 2016

For developing the world’s tiniest machines.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to three scientists for their work in designing and synthesizing molecular machines. Their creations are on the nano-scale, “a thousand times thinner than a hair strand,” and are capable of performing tasks with the addition of energy, according to a press release.

The Laureates are Jean-Pierre Sauvage of the University of Strasbourg, France; Bernard L. Feringa of the University of Groningen, the Netherlands; and Sir J. Fraser Stoddart of Northwestern University.

SEE ALSO: Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded to 3 Scientists

In 1983, Sauvage linked two ring-shaped molecules together, forming a chain. Rather than being connected by the sharing of electrons between molecules, which is how these types of chains naturally form, Sauvage created his chain using a freer mechanical bond with the help of metal ions, allowing his machine’s parts to move relative to one another.

Stoddart then succeeded in developing a molecular ring that could actually move along a molecular axle in 1991, which set the stage for his group’s construction of a molecular lift that could raise itself above a surface, an artificial muscle, and a molecular-based computer chip with a 20 kB memory.

The first molecular motor came along in 1999, when Feringa created a molecular rotor blade that could spin continually in one direction. Feringa’s group has since optimized the motor, which can now rotate at 12 million revs per second, and built a four-wheel drive nano-car. Using molecular motors, the group was also able to spin a long glass cylinder 1,000 times bigger than the motors themselves.

These three scientists have shown it is “possible to design and create molecular-level machines that can, in some way, mimic their macroscopic counterparts,” comments chief editor at Nature Chemistry Stuart Cantrill, who got his PhD under Stoddart. He notes that the workings of these tiny devices are not the same as larger machines, as “the forces at the nanoscale are different to those that prevail in the macroscopic world.”

Although molecular machines currently fall into the realm of basic research, their real-world applications will likely involve the development of new materials, sensors, energy storage systems, and computer technologies.

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