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.”
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.
“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.”