3 Scientists Win Nobel in Chemistry for Creating World's Smallest Machines

Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa (left to right) jointly shared the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa (left to right) jointly shared the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. (Image credit: N. Elmehed. © Nobel Media 2016)

A trio of scientists — Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa  — has won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for designing and creating the world's smallest machines, turning linked-up molecules into contraptions that could do work, the Royal Academy of Swedish Sciences announced this morning (Oct. 5). These include a tiny lift, artificial muscles and a mini motor. 

The molecular machines, which are 1,000 times thinner than a strand of hair, have "taken chemistry to a new dimension," according to a Nobel Prize statement.

The story begins in 1983, when Sauvage, who is now at the University of Strasbourg, France, linked two ring-shaped molecules into a chain; but rather than connecting the molecules by having them share electrons, Sauvage used a freer mechanical bond. "For a machine to be able to perform a task it must consist of parts that can move relative to each other. The two interlocked rings fulfilled exactly this requirement," according to the statement. [Nobel Prize 2016: Here Are the Winners (and What They Achieved)]

In 1991, Stoddart, now at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, took a molecular ring and threaded it onto a molecular axle. Then, he closed the opening of the ring to keep it attached to the molecular axle. From this teensy feat, Stoddard crafted a molecular lift, a molecular muscle and a molecular computer chip.

In 1999, Feringa created the world's first molecular motor. Now at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, Feringa created a molecular rotor blade and got it to spin in the same direction. Feringa also designed a nanocar using a molecular motor.  

Though tiny, these feats are revolutionary: "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," according to the statement. "Molecular machines will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems."

The three scientists will split the Nobel Prize amount of 8 million Swedish krona (about $937,000).

Original article on Live Science.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.