Nobel chemistry prize awarded to trio for developing 'molecular machines'

Stockholm: Jean-Pierre Sauvage of France, J Fraser Stoddart of Britain and Bernard Feringa of the Netherlands won the Nobel Chemistry Prize on Tuesday for developing molecular machines, the world's smallest machines, the jury said. Machines at the molecular level are 1,000th the width of a human hair and have taken chemistry to a new dimension, the academy said.

"They have developed molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added... Molecular machines will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems," it said. "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 press release on the official website announced that "the development of computing demonstrates how the miniaturisation of technology can lead to a revolution. The 2016 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have miniaturised machines and taken chemistry to a new dimension".


Jean-Pierre Sauvage of France, J Fraser Stoddart of Britain and Bernard Feringa of The Netherlands. Courtesy: Twitter/@NobelPrize

It also added that the "first step towards a molecular machine" was taken by Jean-Pierre Sauvage of University of Strasbourg, France, in 1983. This happened when he was successful in linking two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain, known as a 'catenane' In this, the molecules are linked by a mechanical bond that render them "freer", thereby making the machine perform its task smoothly.

The second step was taken by Fraser Stoddart of Northwestern University in Evanston, in 1991, when he developed a 'rotaxane'. A 'rotaxane' is obtained by threading "a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle". This helped him demonstrate that the ring could move along the axle. Stoddart has already developed a molecule-based computer chip with 20 kB memory. Researchers believe chips so small may revolutionise computer technology the way silicon-based transistors once did, the academy said.

Bernard Feringa from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, was the first person to develop a molecular motor — in 1999, he was able to make a molecular rotor blade spin continually in the same direction. Using what he developed, Feringa has also rotated a glass cylinder 10,000 times bigger than the motor and also designed a nanocar, the press release added.

The laureates share the 8 million kronor ($930,000) prize for the "design and synthesis" of molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said. It said the laureates' work has also inspired other researchers to build increasingly advanced molecular machinery, including "a robot that can grasp and connect amino acids" in 2013. Researchers are also hoping to develop a new kind of battery using this technology.

Sauvage, 71, is professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg and director of research emeritus at France's National Center for Scientific Research. His wife, reached by telephone, was choking back tears. Stoddart, 74, is a chemistry professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

Feringa, 65, is a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. "I don't know what to say, I'm a bit shocked," Feringa told reporters in Stockholm by telephone. "I'm so honored' and I'm also emotional about it."

The chemistry prize was the last of this year's science awards. The medicine prize went to a Japanese biologist who discovered the process by which a cell breaks down and recycles content. The physics prize was shared by three British-born scientists for theoretical discoveries that shed light on strange states of matter.

With inputs from agencies

Published Date: Oct 05, 2016 03:52 pm | Updated Date: Oct 05, 2016 04:29 pm