Bernard Feringa, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, and James Fraser Stoddart were awarded Wednesday the 2016 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work on molecular machines.

These machines are thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair and are man-created “molecules” that have movable parts, with permit movement control when energy is added to them.

Bernard Feringa (right), Jean-Pierre Sauvage (left), and James Fraser Stoddart were awarded with the 2016 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Photo credit:
Bernard Feringa (right), Jean-Pierre Sauvage (left), and James Fraser Stoddart were awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Photo credit:

Scientists believe these particles could be used to operate a microscopic sensor, create energy-storage devices that cannot be seen with the naked eye and build novel materials.

“These three laureates… have opened this entire field of molecular machinery and shown us that you can make machine-like function at the molecular level,” stated one of the members of the Nobel chemistry committee, Olof Ramström.

Ramström also compared Feringa, Sauvage and Fraser’s discoveries with the creation of the first crude electric motors in the fact that these 19th-century scientists could not comprehend the impact their invention would make in modern society. For him, they already “created a revolution.”

The scientists’ individual findings

Nature creates these “molecular machines” every day since they make animals and human bodies capable of function by giving energy to the organs. According to the researchers, it is similar to the motor protein kinesin, which means the energy travels through “microtubules” in the cells.

Scientists have spent the past six decades trying to create a device that will function like biological molecules do. In 1959, Richard Feynman, physicist, and fellow Nobel laureate gave a lecture stating molecular machines were the “future,” and that one day it would be possible to “arrange the atoms the way we want; the very atoms, all the way down.”

Jean-Pierre Sauvage had his first significant discovery in 1983 when he managed to manufacture two molecules that had the shape of a ring and were connected by a mechanical bond that could be manipulated. This was the first time somebody had succeeded in creating a molecule that could be controlled. In the following years, Sauvage could modify the molecules’ structure, making a ring rotate around the other.

By the early nineties, Stoddart thoroughly studied Sauvage’s molecules and reinvented it as a “ring” of molecules that were linked through an axle, which could be controlled when adding energy. The “shuttle” could move back and forth between the molecules, using the heat created when the particles collision with each other. A few years later the scientist would manufacture a “molecular abacus” that stored information.

In 1999, Feringa used these discoveries to built the first “molecular motor” on Earth. This device is a minuscule spinning blade that perpetually rotates on an axis. From this motor, a “nano car” was created, named as such because it had four “wheels” that would push the structure forward, like a car.

Feringa utilized his nano car to demonstrated it had the power to rotate a glass bar that was thousands of times bigger than the device.

According to Sara Snogerup Linse, Nobel committee member, the three scientists had to endure two critical challenges to create their molecular machines. Firstly, they had to find a way to build molecules with easily manipulated bonds, describes by Linse as “more like a door hinge than a nail.”

The second obstacle was to create motion in one defined direction, the molecules should go where the scientist want it to go, something incredibly difficult, according to Linse, since molecular structures “always want to reach equilibrium.”

Bernard Feringa, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, and James Fraser Stoddart

Stoddart was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is the oldest of the trio, aged seventy-four. He is a chemistry professor at Northwestern University, in Illinois and was made knight by Queen Elizabeth II for his scientific research.

Sauvage, aged seventy-one, is a French citizen and professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg. Simultaneously he is the emeritus director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research in France. Meanwhile, Feringa is the youngest, being sixty-four years old. He is a Dutch citizen and is a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Groningen.

The trio has stated that they will share the prize of almost one million dollars equally between them.

“I feel a bit like the Wright Brothers. People were saying, ‘Why do we need a flying machine?’ Now we have a Boeing 747 and an Airbus. That’s a little bit how I feel. The opportunities are great. I’m not so worried about [the way my work will be applied] 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,” stated Feringa after being given the news.

Last year, German scientists concluded that the weak mechanical bonds of the molecular machines could be used to create the compound combretastatin A-4, a powerful anti-cancerogenic element. Eventually, this could allow doctors to target only the cancerous cells, without damaging the healthy ones.

Source: The Washington Post