Nobel Prize 2016 in Chemistry Awarded to the Inventors of World’s Smallest (Molecular) Machine

Nobel Prize 2016 in Chemistry Awarded to the Inventors of World’s Smallest (Molecular) Machine

Oct 5, 2016 @ 19:38 |

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 is awarded to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa for their design and production of molecular machines.

                                    (Chemistry Noble Prize 2016 Awardees)

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 to Jean-Pierre Sauvage (University of Strasbourg, France), Sir J. Fraser Stoddart (Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA) and Bernard L. Feringa (University of Groningen, the Netherlands) for “the design and synthesis of molecular machines”. They have developed 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 2016 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have miniaturised machines and taken chemistry to a new dimension.

(Knots created by Jean-Pierre Sauvage (a) Trefoil knot: This symbol is found in Celtic crosses, runestones, depictions of Thor’s hammer (Mjölnir) and, in Christianity, it symbolises the Holy Trinity. (b) Borromean rings: Fraser Stoddart has produced molecular Borromean rings. The Italian Borromeo family used the symbol on their shield. It is also found on Old Norse picture stones and has symbolized the Holy Trinity. (c) Solomon’s knot: Stoddart and Sauvage have made a molecular version of Solomon’s knot, a symbol of King Solomon’s wisdom. It has been frequently used in Islam and is found in Roman mosaics)


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.


Molecular axle

The second step was taken by Fraser Stoddart in 1991, when he developed a rotaxane. 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’s four-wheel drive nanocar)

Bernard 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.

In 1999, when Ben Feringa produced the first molecular motor, he used a number of clever tricks to get it to spin in one and the same direction. Normally, molecules’ movements are governed by chance; on average, a spinning molecule moves as many times to the right as to the left. But Ben Feringa designed a molecule that was mechanically constructed to spin in a particular direction.

The molecule was composed of something that can be likened to two small rotor blades, two flat chemical structures that were joined with a double bond between two carbon atoms. A methyl group was attached to each rotor blade; these, and parts of the rotor blade, worked like ratchets that forced the molecule to keep rotating in the same direction. When the molecule was exposed to a pulse of ultraviolet light, one rotor blade jumped 180 degrees around the central double bond. Then the ratchet moved into position. With the next light pulse, the rotor blade jumped another 180 degrees. And so it continued, round and round in the same direction.

The first motor wasn’t exactly fast, but Feringa’s research group has optimized it. In 2014 the motor rotated at a speed of 12 million revs per second. In 2011, the research group also built a four-wheel drive nanocar; a molecular chassis held together four motors that functioned as wheels. When the wheels span, the car moved forward over a surface.

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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.

The groundbreaking steps taken by Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Fraser Stoddart and Ben Feringa in developing molecular machinery have resulted in a toolbox of chemical structures that are used by researchers around the world to build increasingly advanced creations. One of the most striking examples is a molecular robot that can grasp and connect amino acids. This was built in 2013 with a rotaxane as its foundation.


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