2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry - Molecular Machines

The World's Smallest Machines

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry honors the development and importance of molecular machines.
The 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry honors the development and importance of molecular machines. PASIEKA / Getty Images

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded to Jean-Pierre Sauvage (University of Strasbourg, France), Sir J. Fraser Stoddart (Northwestern Univeristy, Illinois, USA), and Bernard L. Feringa (University of Groningen, the Netherlands) for the design and synthesis of molecular machines.

What Are Molecular Machines and Why Are They Important?

Molecular machines are molecule that move in a certain way or perform a task when given energy. At this point in time, miniscule molecular motors are at the same level of sophistication as electric motors in the 1830s. As scientists refine their understanding of how to get molecules to move in certain way, they pave the future for using the tiny machines to store energy, make new materials, and detect changes or substances.

What Do The Nobel Prize Winners Win?

The winners of this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry each receive a Nobel Prize medal, an elaborately decorated award, and prize money. The 8 million Swedish krona will be split equally between the laureates.

Understand the Achievements

Jean-Pierre Sauvage laid the groundwork for the development of molecular machines in 1983 when he formed the molecular chain called catenane. The significance of catenane is that its atoms were linked by mechanical bonds rather than traditional covalent bonds, so the parts of the chain could be more easily opened and closed.

In 1991, Fraser Stoddard moved ahead when he developed a molecule called a rotaxane. This was a molecular ring on an axle. The ring could be made to move along the axle, leading to the inventions of molecular computer chips, molecular muscles, and a molecular lift.

In 1999, Bernard Feringa was the first person to devise a molecular motor. He formed a rotor blade and demonstrated he could make all of the blades spin in the same direction. From there, he moved on to design a nanocar.

Natural Molecules Are Machines

Molecular machines have been known in nature. The classic example is a bacterial flagellum, which moves the organism forward. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry recognizes the significance of being able to design tiny functional machines from molecules and the importance of making a molecular toolbox from which humanity can build more intricate miniature machines. Where does the research go from here? Practical applications of nanomachines include smart materials, "nanobots" that deliver drugs or detect diseased tissue, and high-density memory.