This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to three scientists who figured out how to build tiny machines out of molecules. The machines, which include a nano-sized car, are invisible to the human eye and have important implications in medicine and other fields. The researchers — Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart, and Bernard Feringa — will share the prize equally.
These machines are molecules with tiny movable parts that move in controlled ways and are a thousand times thinner than a strand of hair. Scientists have dreamed of creating machines at such a small scale for decades. Notably, physicist Richard Feynman, himself a Nobel laureate, imagined the possibility of these creations in a key lecture back in 1959.
The actual development of the machines by today’s Nobel laureates was a big step forward for nanotechnology and may be useful in medicine and energy storage. For example, they could deliver drugs precisely to diseased cells, which would reduce the side effects of attacking many cells (including healthy ones) with medication. They could also be used as a new way to store energy, or to create scratch-resistant materials.
Back in 1983, Sauvage figured out how to connect two ring-shaped molecules. He later made it it possible for one ring to rotate around the other. The fact that these rings can move instead of being locked to each other is the first step in thinking about how machines with moving parts would work.
Nearly a decade later, Stoddart threaded a ring of molecules onto an axle. The molecular ring could move along the axle if you added heat. You can also build tiny computer chips in this way.
And in 1999, Feringa became the first person to develop a molecular motor, or a molecular blade that rotates on an axis. Instead of molecules that moved however they wanted, this blade only moved in one direction when exposed to light. This breakthrough was later used to built nanocars.
Sauvage is from France. Stoddart is originally from Scotland, but now teaches in the United States.
Feringa works in the Netherlands. "I feel a little bit like the Wright Brothers, who were flying 100 years ago for the first time," he said in a phone call to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. "People were saying, ‘Why do we need a flying machine?’ And now we have a Boeing 747 and an Airbus."