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Nobel prize for makers of world’s smallest machines


Three European scientists have won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for developing nanomachines that could be injected to fight cancer or used to make new technologies.

The prize has been awarded to Jean Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Ferringa, who developed molecular machines that are a thousand times thinner than a strand of hair. The scientists developed molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added. These tiny machines could eventually be used in medicine, or to create new materials, sensors and energy storage systems.


“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,” said the Swedish Academy of Sciences (SAS).

According to the academy, the first step towards a molecular machine was taken by 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, however in the chain they were linked by a freer mechanical bond.

Jean-Pierre Sauvage used a copper ion to interlock molecules using a mechanical bond.


The next step was taken by Stoddart in 1991, when he developed arotaxane. He threaded a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle and demonstrated that the ring was able to move along the axle. This led to several developments from Stoddart: a molecular lift, a molecular muscle and a molecule-based computer chip.

Fraser Stoddart’s molecular lift.


Finally, Bernard Ferringa actually developed a molecular motor; in 1999 he was able to make a molecular rotor blade spin continuously in the same direction. Using molecular motors, he has rotated a glass cylinder that is 10,000 times bigger than the motor, as well as designing a nanocar.

When Ben Feringa created the first molecular motor, it was was mechanically constructed to spin in a particular direction. His research group has optimised the motor so that it now spins at 12 million revs per second.


“Time has clearly shown the revolutionary effect of miniaturising computer technology, whereas we have only seen the initial stages of what could result from the miniaturisation of machines,” according to the SAS.

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