Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir. James Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa were awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for their work on molecular machines.
A thousand times thinner than a human hair, these "machines" are specially designed molecules with movable parts that produce controlled movements when energy is added. They may one day be used to build new materials, operate microscopic sensors, and create energy-storage mechanisms too small to be seen with the naked eye.
"Three laureates … have opened this entire field of molecular machinery and shown us that you can make machine-like function at molecular level," said a spokesman for the Nobel chemistry prize committee.
He compared Sauvage, Stoddart and Feringa's breakthroughs to the invention of the first crude electric motors. Scientists in the early 19th century couldn't envision the countless ways that their spinning cranks and wheels would be put to use. But they'd already "created a revolution" he said.
Biology produces molecular machines all the time — they power our organs and allow our bodies to function. But since the 1950s researchers have dreamed of manufacturing an apparatus that could function at a nanometer scale.
Sauvage, of the University in Strasbourg in France, produced the first breakthrough in this effort in 1983, when he succeeded in producing two ring-shaped molecules linked by an easily-manipulated mechanical bond. This was the first time chemists had manufactured a molecule that could be manipulated in this way. Later, Sauvage modified the structure so that one ring rotated around the other.
In 1991, Stoddart, who was born in the United Kingdom and is now based at Northwestern University in Illinois, literally reinvented the wheel on a microscopic scale. He created a ring of molecules that moved along an axle in a controlled manner when heat was added.
In 1999, Feringa built on both these breakthroughs to build the world's first molecular motor, a tiny spinning blade that rotates continually on an axis. That molecule was developed into a "nanocar," whose four wheels rotate to move the microscopic structure forward along a plane. He also showed that the molecule could be used to rotate a glass rod thousands of times larger than the motor itself.
"I feel a bit like the Wright Brothers," Feringa said in a phone call to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Wednesday, where the prize was announced. The Dutch organic chemist, who works at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, said it's difficult to predict exactly where his innovations will lead. One application might be tiny medical robots that can travel through the bloodstream to search out a cancer cell or deliver medicine to a precise spot.
Asked if he had any "nightmares" about the ways his work might be applied, Feringa demurred.
"I'm not so worried about it because once we are able to design these nanorobots we will also have the opportunity to build in all kinds of safety devices if we need them," he said.
This post will be updated.
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