This week, the international team that invented the world’s tiniest machines won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Three scientists will share the prize in an even split: Jean-Pierre Sauvage (France), Sir Fraser Stoddart (Great Britain), and Bernard “Ben” Feringa (Netherlands). Over the course of 16 years beginning in 1983, these three invented and developed molecular machines that could some day lead to breakthroughs in new materials and energy storage devices.
The molecular machines (also known as nanomachines) invented and developed by this international trio are 1,000 times smaller than a single strand of hair. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Chemistry prize, describes the potential of the team’s innovation. “They have developed molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added,” the academy said in a statement. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry (in addition to global fame) pays out $931,000 (8 million Swedish Krona). Stoddart, Sauvage, and Feringa will split the prize three ways.
In 1983, Sauvage successfully linked two ring-shaped molecules, creating a chain—the first breakthrough leading to the development of the tiny machines. In 1991, Stoddart developed a molecule called rotaxane, which involves a dumbbell-shaped molecule with a ring around its middle. Feringa, in 1999, became the first person to create a molecular motor, completing the machine. He has used molecular motors to rotate a glass cylinder 10,000 times bigger than the motor, hinting at the scientific potential of these incredibly minuscule machines.
“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 jury said when announcing the winners.