Nobel Prize in chemistry given to three scientists for building ‘molecular machines’

The work that scientists have done is create machines – like a coffee grinder or a car – but that work at just the molecular scale, and are measured in nanometers

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 05 October 2016 10:48
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Nobel Chemistry Prize winners announced

Three scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for building the tiniest machines in the world.

Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa won the prize for their work on the “design and synthesis of molecular machines”, the Nobel judges said.

That work involves creating the kinds of machines that would normally be used by people – similar to engines, cars or coffee grinders. But instead they are measured at the size of nanometers, built out of molecules and much smaller than a human hair.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences says molecular machines “will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems”.

The work towards such miniaturised machines began in 1983, when new laureate Mr Sauvage succeeded in linking two molecules in a chain. That is the basic requirement of such a machine, since it allows two parts to move relative to each other.

Further work was done by the three new laureates on making those machines more controllable and useful. The work has led to a molecular motor that rotated a glass cylinder that was 10,000 times bigger than the actual motor and has also led to the development of a nanocar.

But even more grand applications are likely to come in the future, the judges said. Those might include tiny robots injected into the body or miniature motors that can carry things around, laureate Bernard L Feringa said in a press conference, comparing himself to the Wright Brothers and how the ultimate uses and ubiquity of flying came to dominate the world.

The chemistry prize is the third to be announced this week, after the physics and biology ones, and the last of the science ones. The rest – peace, literature and economics – will follow this week and into the next.

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