This morning, three pioneers in the field of chemistry—Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa—were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on molecular machines. Instead of iron and steel, these tiny devices use molecular components, spinning and pumping much like life-size cranks and pistons. Invisible to the naked eye, these nanomachines could eventually be used in new materials, sensors or even targeted delivery of medicines.
The trio made huge contributions to a molecular toolbox that is just the beginning for these nano-scale gadgets. “I feel a little bit like the Wright brothers who were flying 100 years ago for the first time, and people were saying why do we need a flying machine?” Feringa told the Nobel committee during a phone call, report Nicola Davis and Ian Sample at The Guardian. “And now we have the Boeing 747 and the Airbus."
There are already many materials that can be chemically produced. But now with the addition of these tiny movements, "there is endless opportunity," he says. "It opens up a whole new world of nanomachines.”
In 1983 Jean-Pierre Sauvage and his French research group made the first advancement toward the creation of the minute devices, overcoming a challenge that baffled many before him. Using a copper ion, he and his team attracted two crescent shaped molecules, locking them together around a ring to create a so-called mechanical bond, creating what looks like a link in a molecular chain, according to a press briefing.
The next major breakthrough came in 1991, when Stoddart created a nano-sized axle using a molecular ring free of negatively charged electrons and a rod rich in electrons. When the two met in solution, they attracted one another and the rod slipped through the ring like an axle. The addition of heat sparked the movement. In the years since, Stoddart has even incorporated this tiny movement into a computer chip.
Feringa’s major contribution to the field came in 1999 when he and his team developed the first molecular motor. The spinning movements of molecules are typically random, but Feringa was able to design a molecule that spins in one controlled direction. He added these molecular “wheels” to a carbon chassis to create a molecular car that gets its oomph from pulses of light.
Researchers believe that nanomachines have the potential to revolutionize computing, healthcare and material science. One day, nanomachines could work as tiny molecular robots, repairing organs or cleaning up the environment.
They could even revolutionize cities, Mark Miodownik, professor of materials and society at the University College London tells Hannah Devlin at The Guardian. "If you want infrastructure that looks after itself—and I think we do—I’m pretty sure we’re going to be moving towards self-healing systems," he says. "We’ll have plastic pipes that can repair themselves or a bridge that when it gets cracked has these machines that rebuild the bridge at a microscopic scale. It’s just beginning. The potential is really immense."
Researchers are already taking big steps towards putting the molecular machines to use, reports Sarah Kaplan at The Washington Post. Last year, researchers in Germany used molecular machines to build an anti-cancer compound that is turned off and on by light. This allows doctors to target affected areas without damaging healthy tissue. Another group created a molecular “robot” able to link together amino acids like a tiny moving arm.
But the technology is still in its infancy, and there's plenty more to come. According to Nobelprize.org, “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.”