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Biggest Prize In Chemistry Goes To Designers Of The Smallest Machines

The winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry are displayed on a screen during a press conference to announce the winners at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on Wednesday.
Jonathan Nackstrand
AFP/Getty Images
The winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry are displayed on a screen during a press conference to announce the winners at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on Wednesday.

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to three scientists for their groundbreaking work on molecular machines — tiny, man-made structures with moving parts capable of performing tasks.

Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa share the prize equally.

Sauvage linked two tiny rings to create a molecular chain, or "catenane," in 1983; Stoddart designed a "rotaxane," or a ring on an axle; and Feringa designed the first molecular motor by making a motor blade spin in one direction.

Building on those basic parts, chemists have designed molecular muscles, elevators and cars.

At the press conference announcing the prize, prize committee member Sara Snogerup Linse asked if the audience wanted to see such machines.

She pulled away a black cylinder. "Ta-da!" she said. But there was nothing there.

"I'm sorry," she said. "You can't see them. They are more than a thousand times smaller than a human hair."

"They are really very tiny," Olof Ramstrom, another committee member, agreed, as he presented a series of diagrams showing how the unseeable gadgets are built and how they work.

Sauvage's first breakthrough, the chain, relies on using a copper ion to hold two molecules in place as a third is added to complete the second loop of the chain. The copper ion can then be removed, allowing the two rings to move freely while still connected to each other.

Stoddart then realized he could use the attraction between an electron-poor open ring and an electron-rich rod to thread the ring onto an axle — then close the loop, so it would stay in place.

After that, Feringa used pulses of light to drive a spinning rotor blade in a single direction — unlike the random motions that generally characterize molecular movement.

The three laureates "have opened this entire field of molecular machinery," Ramstrom said. "They have really mastered motion control at the molecular scale."

In a speech in 2008, Stoddart introduced his work in nanotechnology by first explaining that he grew up on a farm without any electricity.

"I saw the transition from the horse and cart age into the tractor and automobile age," he said. "The one thing I learned ... was that you had to move with the times; you had to move with the technology. You couldn't stand and wait and hold things as they were."

Stoddart and his colleagues certainly didn't stand and wait, the Nobel committee says: They have helped the field of chemistry take "the first steps into a new world," as one Nobel publication puts it.

Here's more from the Nobel Prize website on the possible implications of the research:

"2016's 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 electric trains, washing machines, fans and food processors. Molecular machines will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems."

More details on the prize-winning research, written for a general audience, is available here: a more technical explanation is also posted online.

Sauvage, who is French, is professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg in France; Stoddart is Scottish and affiliated with Northwestern University; Feringa is Dutch and a professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

The three chemists aren't just colleagues in the same field; they're all close to one another.

Stoddart's daughter, Alison — a chemist as well — spoke to The Associated Press after the prize was announced, and said her father was "very happy about the people he won the prize with."

"They just make really interesting molecules and they love doing it," she said. "It's just really nice they won together."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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