Jean-Pierre Sauvage, James Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa were awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for their work on molecular machines.
Molecular machines, the world’s smallest mechanical devices, may eventually be used to create new materials, sensors and energy storage systems, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in announcing the prize.
“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,” the academy said. The three scientists will share equally in the prize of 8 million Swedish kronor, or about $930,000.
The first step toward creating a molecular machine was making a moving part. Chemists have long been able to synthesize ring-shaped molecules, and they knew that interlocking rings might function as molecular parts.
But how to create a second ring that passed through the first ring? Dr. Sauvage figured that out in 1983.
A charged copper ion essentially acted as a pin around which to form the interlocking rings, he found. Once the rings were connected, the copper ion could be removed. These molecules became known as catenanes. The pieces of the molecule were held together mechanically, like links in a chain, rather than the usual chemical bonds.
Dr. Stoddart made the next advance in 1991. Instead of two interlocking rings, Dr. Stoddart, then at the University of Birmingham in Britain, and his colleagues synthesized a rotaxane: a ring molecule wrapped around a dumbbell-shaped axle. The ring slides back and forth along the dumbbell, like a bead on an abacus.
Dr. Stoddart went on to construct a small computer chip that was essentially a molecular abacus, as well as other complex devices. One was composed of three rotaxanes whose rings were connected to form a larger platform that could rise 0.7 billionths of a meter: a molecular elevator. Rotaxanes bending thin layers of gold acted like an artificial muscle, he found.
As a sidelight, Dr. Sauvage and Dr. Stoddart used their techniques to create molecules that twisted in complicated knots. Dr. Stoddart said in an interview that he was inspired by the interlocking forms in Celtic art.
Dr. Feringa, in 1999, became the first person to develop a molecular motor, creating a minuscule rotor blade powered by light that spun continually in the same direction. The first motor was not fast, but 15 years later, he and his research group demonstrated one that spun 12 million times per second.
In 2011, they built a four-wheel-drive molecular “car.” Four of the molecular motors acted as wheels, connected by a nano-chassis.
The three men invigorated the field of topological chemistry, the academy said on Wednesday. They were pioneers in the second wave of nanotechnology, a field that the physicist Richard P. Feynman, also a Nobel laureate, foresaw as early as 1959. He gave a seminal lecture in 1984, toward the end of his life, on design and engineering at the molecular scale.
In living organisms, nature has produced a slew of molecular machines that ferry materials around cells, construct proteins and divide cells. Artificial molecular machines are still primitive by comparison, but scientists can already envision applications in the future.
“Think about nanomachines, microrobots,” said Dr. Feringa, who spoke by telephone with journalists assembled in Stockholm at the prize announcement. “Think about tiny robots that the doctor in the future will inject in your blood veins, and they go search for cancer cells or going to deliver drugs, for instance.”
The technology could also lead to the creation of “smart materials” that change properties based on external signals, Dr. Feringa said.
The chemistry prize was the last of this year’s science awards. The medicine prize went to a Japanese biologist who discovered the process by which a cell breaks down and recycles content. The physics prize was shared by three British-born scientists for theoretical discoveries that shed light on strange states of matter.
The Nobel Prizes will be handed out at ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.