Three scientists share Nobel Prize for molecular machines

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Three scientists share this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry: (L-R) Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Dutch scientist Bernard "Ben" Feringa, and Scottish-born Fraser Stoddart. Three scientists share this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry: (L-R) Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Dutch scientist Bernard “Ben” Feringa, and Scottish-born Fraser Stoddart.

Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for developing the world’s smallest machines, 1,000 times thinner than a human hair but with the potential to revolutionize computer and energy systems.

Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Scottish-born Fraser Stoddart and Dutch scientist Bernard “Ben” Feringa share the 8 million kronor ($930,000) prize for the “design and synthesis of molecular machines,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

According to the Nobel release:

A molecular-level machine can be defined as “an assembly of a distinct number of molecular components that are designed to perform machinelike movements (output) as a result of an appropriate external stimulation (input)”. Furthermore, a machine requires a supply of energy for its operation, and can be driven by suitable energy sources.

Practical applications are still far away — the academy said molecular motors are at the same stage that electrical motors were in the first half of the 19th century — but the potential is huge.

Stoddart, 74, a chemistry professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has already developed a molecule-based computer chip with 20 kB memory. Researchers believe chips so small may revolutionize computer technology the way silicon-based transistors once did.

Feringa, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, leads a research group that in 2011 built a “nanocar,” a minuscule vehicle with four molecular motors as wheels.

Sauvage is professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg and director of research emeritus at France’s National Center for Scientific Research.

The academy said Sauvage made the first breakthrough in 1983 when he linked two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain. Stoddart took the next step in 1991 by threading a molecular ring onto a molecular axle, while Feringa was the first to develop a molecular motor in 1999 when he got a molecular rotor blade to spin continuously in the same direction.

Molecular stretchers

In the late 1990s, Sauvage’s group were able to develop and demonstrate chemical control of molecular contraction/extension, resembling the action of muscles in living systems. (Courtesy: Nobel Committee)

The academy said the “miniaturization of machines” is just in its initial phase, with potentially “thrilling” developments ahead.

“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 academy said.

Feringa said he could think of all kinds of potential applications, including smart materials that adapt to external conditions or “tiny robots that the doctors in the future will inject in your blood veins and then go to search for a cancer cell or … deliver a drug.”

Molecular elevator

Similar to Sauvage’s group, in 2004, the Stoddart group developed a complex rotaxane device called a “molecular elevator.” These motor studies resulted in a rotaxane-based device with memory function in 2007.

The academy said the laureates’ work has inspired other researchers to build increasingly advanced molecular machinery, including a robot that can grasp and connect amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Researchers are also hoping to develop a new kind of battery using this technology.

NANOCAR

Responding to Richard Feynman’s 1965 proposition of making an infinitesimally small automobile, in 2011 the Feringa group demonstrated the moving action of a chassis-like structure composed of four motor components, operating pairwise in different rotational directions, in the Propulsion of a “nanocar”.

“I feel a little bit like the Wright brothers, who were flying 100 years ago for the first time and then people were saying ‘why do we need a flying machine?'” Feringa, 65, told reporters in Stockholm by phone. “And now we have a Boeing 747 and an Airbus. So that is a bit how I feel.”

Speaking to French TV channel itele, Sauvage, 71, called the news a memorable moment and a big surprise.

“I have won many prizes, but the Nobel Prize is something very special. It’s the most prestigious prize, the one most scientists don’t even dare to dream of in their wildest dreams,” he said.

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.

The Nobel Prizes will be handed out at ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896. Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, wanted his awards to honor achievements that delivered the “greatest benefit to mankind.”

Story compiled with sources from The Associated Press and the Nobel C