World’s smallest machines bag trio

Jean-Pierre Sauvage from the University of Strasbourg, France, J. Fraser Stoddart at Northwestern University in the US and Bernard L. Feringa from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands have shared this year’s chemistry Nobel Prize for the design and manufacture of molecular machines.

They developed synthetic molecules, a thousandth the size of the width of a human hair, that can perform tasks when energy is added.

Sauvage, in 1983, linked two ring-shaped molecules to form a chain, called a catenane. Normally, molecules are joined by strong covalent bonds in which atoms share electrons, but in the chain they were instead linked by a freer mechanical bond.

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Credit: Copyright © Johan Jarnestad / The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

For a machine to perform a task it must consist of parts that can move relative to each other but not become unhooked. The interlocked rings fulfilled this requirement.

Then in 1991, Stoddart developed a rotaxane by threading a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle and showed that the ring was able to move along the axle.

Among his developments based on rotaxanes are a molecular lift, a molecular muscle and a molecule-based computer chip.

Feringa was the first to develop a molecular motor; in 1999 he built a molecular rotor blade spinning continually in the same direction.

Using molecular motors, he has rotated a glass cylinder that is 10,000 times bigger than the motor and also designed a nanocar.

Molecular machines will most likely be used in the development of new materials, sensors and energy storage systems.

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