Nanomachines win chemistry Nobel Prize

...and they're a thousand times thinner than a human hair.
10 October 2016

Interview with 

Khalil Thirlaway, Naked Scientist


This week the top accolades in science, the Nobel Prizes, have been announced. Nobel PrizeKhalil Thirlaway reports...

Khalil - The Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded this year to Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sauvage, the British Sir Fraser Stoddart and the Dutch Bernard Feringa for their work on the world's tiniest machines.

You might think that computers, phones and other gadgets have become pretty compact in recent years, but that's nothing compared to what these three scientists have achieved. Their pioneering work has led to the creation of miniature machines the size of molecules!

Most molecules are held together by bonds which hold the atoms tightly together, but to make a machine you need parts which can move relative to each other, like wheels and hinges.

Sauvage took the first step when he joined two ring-shaped molecules together like links in a chain. This structure allows the two rings to move around just like chain links would. This showed that molecules could be joined and still retain their mobility, but two linked rings aren't in themselves a particularly useful machine.

Stoddart built on this idea and came up with a structure which looks and acts like a wheel on an axle. A ring-shaped molecule was able to rotate around a long, thin molecule. Stoddart had literally reinvented the wheel!

Feringa then took the field a leap further still when he invented the molecular motor. This extraordinary light-powered motor has sufficient power to move objects much larger than itself, and Feringa has even designed a so-called "nanocar", a four-wheeled molecular structure that can drive forwards when activated by light!

The field of molecular machines which Sauvage, Stoddart and Feringa pioneered is still in its infancy, but its potential applications could impact every aspect of our lives. The ability to create such miniscule machines opens up a whole world of possibilities in materials, medicine, engineering and many, many other fields.


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