Science

Makers of World’s Smallest Machines Win Nobel Prize for Chemistry

These machines are a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair, and have been able to function like motors and elevators, and even mimic muscles.

Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa, the winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize for chemistry. Credit: nobelprize.org

Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa, the winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize for chemistry. Credit: nobelprize.org

The 2016 Nobel Prize for chemistry has been awarded to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa for “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines”. These machines are a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair, and have been able to function like motors and elevators, and even mimic muscles.

The first machine built among the laureates was by Sauvage in 1983, when he linked two ring-shaped molecules together like a chain. His invention demonstrated that it was possible to keep molecules not through a chemical bond, where they share electrons, but through a mechanical bond. The chain he built was called a catenane and set the stage for more complex machines.

Sauvage was followed by Stoddart in 1991, when he built the rotaxane: a ‘rotor’ molecule threaded onto an ‘axle’ molecule such that, together, they could function like the parts of a very small car. Eight years later, Feringa built a molecular motor, and with which he embarked on building the world’s first nanocar.

According to nobelprize.org: “In terms of development, the molecular motor is at the same stage as the electric motor was in the 1830s, when scientists displayed various spinning cranks and wheels, unaware that they would lead to electric trains, washing machines, fans and food processors.” The hope is that molecular machines of the future can be all these things – as well as make for new materials and sensors.

Sauvage is French, Stoddart Scottish, and Feringa Dutch, and they’re aged 72, 74 and 65 respectively. As a result, the average age of the laureates of the Nobel Prize for chemistry has slightly increased from 58 years, while the modal demographic remains that of a white male.