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Web Date: October 5, 2016

Molecular machines garner 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Three chemists recognized for their work on mechanically interlocked molecules
Department: Science & Technology
Keywords: materials
Credit: Catherine Schröder/Unistra
Northwestern U.
Courtesy of Ben Feringa
Credit: Catherine Schröder/Unistra
Northwestern U.
Courtesy of Ben Feringa

Chemists who envisioned and built machines on the molecular scale have won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The award of nearly $1 million will be shared equally between Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart, and Ben L. Feringa “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines.”

A rotaxane consisting of a crown ether threaded on a dumbbell-shaped structure (top). When light shines on it (model, bottom) the crown ether (C is yellow; H, white; and O, orange) moves along the dumbbell (C is light blue; H, white; O, red; N, dark blue; and Ru, green.)

Molecular machines are single-molecules that behave much like the machines people encounter every day: They have controllable movements and can perform a task with the input of energy. Examples include a tiny elevator that goes up and down with changes in pH and a super-small motor that spins in one direction when exposed to light and heat. Many in the field speculate that molecular machines could find use in computing, novel materials, and energy storage.

Building machines on the molecular scale takes clever chemistry. Both University of Strasbourg’s Sauvage and Northwestern University’s Stoddart were recognized for their work in the 1980s and 1990s creating molecules linked by a mechanical bond—components that are mechanically interlocked rather than covalently attached. These include catenanes, ring-shaped moieties hooked together like links in a chain, and rotaxanes, ring-shaped moieties wrapped around a rod-shaped one.

In 1999 University of Groningen’s Feringa created the first molecular motor—a molecule that spins in one direction based on the light- and heat-driven isomerization of a double bond.

In subsequent years a menagerie of molecular machines has been built in the laboratories of these three chemists and many others working in the field, including a motorized molecular car from Feringa’s lab that scoots along a surface.

2016 Nobel Prizes

C&EN’s coverage of this year's laureates.

  Yoshinori Ohsumi, Physiology or Medicine

  David Thouless, Duncan Haldane, and Michael Kosterlitz, Physics

   Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart, and Ben L. Feringa, Chemistry

And don't forget to check out all of C&EN’s coverage of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, including our analysis of what chemistry wins and who’s been nominated.

“Chemistry is about creating objects and new things,” said Stoddart reached at home in the early hours this morning. This award, he said, recognizes chemists—scientists who make, model, and measure. The Nobel Committee, he noted, has “recognized three people whose hearts and souls are in chemistry”

“The recipients are an outstanding choice,” says Boston College chemistry professor T. Ross Kelly, who works in the field of molecular machines. “Creating molecules from scratch with function is something only chemists and nature can do.” The body is full of molecular machines, Kelly notes, and being able to understand how they work and then build them from scratch may allow scientists to repair them when they malfunction.

“The Nobel Prize is way beyond a gift to three scientists,” notes ACS President Donna Nelson. “Each year it inspires work in a different area of science.” Nelson, who is also an organic chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma, says that she appreciates the difficulty of creating molecular machines. Not only does the work present a synthetic challenge, she says, “but being able to prove that you’ve made your target molecules and that they have the desired functionality…it’s an amazing feat. This prize is well deserved.”


A model of a single-molecule car that can advance across a copper surface when electronically excited by an STM tip.
Credit: Courtesy of Ben Feringa


Speaking of Chemistry takes a look at the work of the three molecular machinists who claimed this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Credit: C&EN/ACSReactions

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This article has been translated into Spanish by and can be found here.

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Kuldeep Chandra (October 5, 2016 10:03 AM)
Congratulations to three eminent chemists. I foresee there work would result lot of developments in treatment of chronic diseases and some day in managing psycho-kinetic phenomenon where energy for molecular movements would come from the brain waves. I would love to see when such molecular implants can give sight to retina detached patients and management of macular atrophy.
Kuldeep Chandra
Prof. Dr. Nurullah Saracoglu (October 5, 2016 11:09 AM)
Dr Narayan G K A S S (October 5, 2016 11:16 AM)
mechanizing chemistry in the long run would make the scientists understand the life's mechanism.
S.Senthilkumar (October 5, 2016 12:51 PM)
They simply showed that imagination is more important than knowledge in any branch of science. Chemist can construct molecule for any application.
Congratulations to 2016 chemistry noble laureates.
Steve Diamanti (October 5, 2016 12:52 PM)
According to Alfred Nobel, the nobel prize is granted to those who have "conferred the greatest benefit to humankind". I find the article above lacking in a description of the potential utility (future or current) of the fantastic and exciting work of the 2016 chemistry honorees. Sharing not only the "cool science" aspect of the work but also the potential utility of the inventions to improve the human condition will help us as scientists better connect with and be valued by the non-scientific population.
Wilson Nieves  (October 5, 2016 8:39 PM)
This is an exquisite example of the future of science and perhaps humanity. Perhaps the motivation for many scientists or the appreciation of nature and its power that could be manipulated completely at some point.
Taleb AlTel (October 5, 2016 10:51 PM)
Congratulations! Well deserved, for me ever since I was a post graduate students back in the early 90s, it was expected that such an outstanding contributions, will one day see the light and win the Nobel Prize. This is what we "chemists" good at, solving problems and making the impossible possible. When I first attended A lecture of Prof Sttodart, at Duke Chemistry; the genious discoveries of his; were very obvious!! Well deserved!
Congratulations again
Taleb AlTel, UAE
shashank upadhya (October 6, 2016 5:20 AM)
congratulations to chemist thinkers,science very interesting. I have full confident that one day we will get never dieing organism,
Oliver Jamison (October 7, 2016 12:39 AM)
I only took a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry before I changed careers to something that pays $ i.e. nursing. However, I always thought that we should be able to design, and mass produce designer catalysts given the scaffolding of carbon nanotubes, and the plethora of organic synthesis techniques for modifying these skeletons. I wonder if any of these Nobel Laureates have tried to build something other than a tiny car or tiny elevator? Have they tried to make molecular machines that speed up otherwise slow chemical reactions to useful rates. In other words, have they tried to do with molecular machines what nature has been doing with them for billions of years.
Jordan Mills (October 7, 2016 3:42 PM)
I believe that the use a minimally invasive molecular structure to better the lives of Sickle Cell Anemia patients could be a great medical breakthrough for this discovery. Removing a cancerous tumor would be extremely difficult in this early stage of development, but simple agitation may be enough to “unhook” sickle cells. Does anyone think this could be a possible application for the Nobel Laureates' research?
Sameen Ahmed Khan (October 8, 2016 1:22 AM)
Heartiest Congratulations!!!

Let us note that James Fraser Stoddart received the 2007 King Faisal International Prize for Science
(in the subcategory of Chemistry) unshared.  Over the thirty-eight years (1979-2016), 54 scholars
from 12 countries have received the KFIP in Science. The science subcategories cover a broad scope:
physics; mathematics; chemistry; and biology by rotation cycle of four years.  To date there are
18 KFIP laureates who also received Nobel Prizes (mostly after the KFIP).  There are two KFIP
laureates (in Mathematics) who are also recipients of the Fields Medal.  I hope the Science Magazines
will not hesitate to cover the prestigious KFIP scheduled to be announced in January 2017. 
Additional detail at

With warm regards + best wishes

Sameen Ahmed KHAN
Assistant Professor
Department of Mathematics and Sciences
College of Arts and Applied Sciences (CAAS)
Dhofar University
Sultanate of OMAN
Tony Gozdz (October 10, 2016 2:55 PM)
An enlightening review of this field has recently (and presciently) been published by James Tour of Rice University in the Inference Review magazine:
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