A tiny lift, artificial muscles and miniscule motors. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize inChemistry 2016 to Jean-Pierre Sauvage of the University of Strasbourg in, France, Sir Fraser Stoddart at the Northwestern University in the USA, and Ben Feringa of the University of Groningen, the Netherlands "for the design and synthesis of molecular machines”; molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added. The development of computing demonstrates how the miniaturisation of technology can lead to a revolution.
The three 2016 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have miniaturised machines and taken sustainable chemistry to a new dimension.
The first step towards a molecular machine was taken by Jean-Pierre Sauvage in 1983, when he 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 freer mechanical bond. For a machine to be able to perform a task it must consist of parts that can move relative to each other. The two interlocked rings fulfilled exactly this requirement.
The second step was taken by Fraser Stoddart in 1991, when he developed arotaxane. He threaded a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle and demonstrated that the ring was able to move along the axle. Among his developments based on rotaxanes are a molecular lift, a molecular muscle and a molecule-based computer chip.
Ben Feringa was the first person to develop a molecular motor. In 1999 he got a molecular rotor blade to spin continually in the same direction. Using molecular motors, he has rotated a glass cylinder that is 10 000 times bigger than the motor and also designed a nanocar (below).
The 2016 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have taken molecular systems out of equilibrium's stalemate and into energy-filled states in which their movements can be controlled. In terms of development, 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 washing machines, fans and food processors.
Molecular machines are part of the sustainable chemistry tool kit that will be used to develop future new materials, sensors and energy storage systems. To learn more about their collective achievement a collection of their research papers, drawn from Nature Research journals, can be found here.
Feringa in Brussels
2016 Nobel laureate Prof Ben Feringa will feature at the International Solvay Institutes’ annual public event on Sunday 23 October 2016 at the Flagey Studios in Brussels. He will be one of the main speakers on the theme of ‘‘Chemistry for the World of Tomorrow’’ and will highlight research at the frontiers of sustainable chemistry.
The event will feature three Nobel Chemistry laureates – two as its main speakers
- Green Chemistry for Sustainable Development by Professor Robert Grubbs (Caltech), 2005 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, and
- The Art of Building Small by Professor Ben Feringa (Groningen) 2015 Laureate of the Solvay Prize and 2016 Nobel laureate
The lectures will be followed by a panel discussion of distinguished scientists led by Professor Kurt Wüthrich (ETH and Scripps Institute), 2002 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. The audience will also have the opportunity to ask questions to the panel on the most pressing issues facing today’s chemistry.
The lectures and debate will be delivered in English with simultaneous translations to Dutch and French. The event is free, but participants must register in advance here.