Nobels & Whistles

Scientists developed molecular motors and machines

It’s tough to get excited about the prospect of a breakthrough that’s, quite literally, microscopic. Unless we’re hearing about the cure to a terminal disease, most micro-developments fall into the “call me when you’ve developed an application” category. Despite this, recent accolades of the highest stature reflect the importance of discoveries in the small world—specifically one that involves microscopic motors.

Three scientists—Fraser Stoddart, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, and Bernard Feringa—were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday, for developing minuscule machines at the molecular level.

The laureates share the $930,000 prize for the “design and synthesis” of molecular machines with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

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—Catherine Schröder/Unistra, Northwestern University photo; Courtesy of Ben Feringa

The academy said the scientists’ work to develop this miniature technology could lead to a revolution.

“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,” the academy said. “Molecular machines will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems.”

Stoddart, 74, was called “a pioneer in integrated nanosystems” by his alma mater, Northwestern University. Sauvage, 71, is professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg and director of research emeritus at France’s National Center for Scientific Research. Feringa, 65, is a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.

The academy said Sauvage made the first breakthrough in 1983 when he linked two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain. Stoddart took the next step in 1991 by threading a molecular ring onto a molecular axle, while Feringa was the first to develop a molecular motor in 1999 when he got a molecular rotor blade to spin in the same direction.

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