Fantastic molecular machines win 3 chemists Nobel Prize

5 Oct 2016

Abstract nanotechnology illustration. Image: Dmitriy Rybin/Shutterstock

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to some of the world’s leading researchers for their design and production of molecular machines.

Showing the melding of the worlds of engineering and chemistry, the Nobel Prize Committee has determined that molecular machines capable of being used in a multitude of different operations are worthy of this year’s chemistry award.

In describing the work of the three Nobel laureates – Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L Feringa – the committee said that their miniaturised machines have “taken chemistry to a new dimension”.

Today, their work has led to molecules whose movements can be controlled remotely, simply by adding energy at particular moments.

Looking at future uses of such a breakthrough, it is envisioned that these molecular machines will likely be used in the development of entirely new materials, sensors and energy storage systems.

As the first researcher to begin work on the award-winning technology, Sauvage is sharing one half of the award with Stoddart and Feringa, whose research was developed on Sauvage’s first step.

Loosening the mechanical bond

This first step was achieved in 1983, when Sauvage succeeded in linking two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain, called a catenane.

Normally, molecules are joined by strong covalent bonds in which the atoms share electrons, but in the chain they were instead linked by a looser mechanical bond.

For a machine to be able to perform a task, it must consist of parts that can move relative to each other and, as per the design, the two interlocked rings did exactly that.

Designing a nanocar

Later in 1991, Stoddart developed what became known as a rotaxane, which threaded a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle and demonstrated that the ring was able to move along the axle.

This breakthrough allowed for rotaxanes to shrink a number of actions down to a molecular level, including a molecular lift, a molecular muscle and a molecule-based computer chip.

Eight years later, Feringa became the first person to develop a molecular rotor blade that spun continually in the same direction.

Using this incredible motor, Feringa rotated a glass cylinder 10,000 times bigger than the motor itself, as well as designing a nanocar.

Speaking of his joint recipients and the work they achieved, Stoddart said in a phone call following the announcement: “It’s not just a scientific family, it’s almost a biological family; we’re very close to each other.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic