The Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2016 was recently awarded to a trio of researchers, Jean-Pierre Sauvage of the University of Strasbourg, France; Sir J. Fraser Stoddart of Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA; and Bernard L. Feringa of the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. They’ve all been working on something that’s said to be on track to revolutionize the very way we build things within 25-30 years: molecular machines.
The Science of the Nobel Prize
Each of the three have succeeded in building what are, quite literally, molecules that have controllable movements. These molecules can theoretically be scaled-up to form almost anything, from a tiny lift to mechanical muscles. Scientists speculate these “machines” could be used for purposes ranging from energy storage to computing and beyond.
The initial step towards creating true molecular machines was creating a mechanical bond between molecules, that is, one that is formed as the molecules link together like a chain. Sauvage perfected that technique in the 1980s when his work in photochemistry accidentally uncovered molecules curled around a copper ion and thus developed a repeatable way to create said catenanes. Today his mechanical bonds are used as the building blocks for the earliest mechanical molecules.
Advancements in Molecular Machines
In the simplest terms possible, molecular machines work when the molecules they’re built of are exposed to heat energy or pH or light or any other kind of catalyst. The interference makes them “jump” or “spin” or “scoot” along a surface – basically, to move the way a larger machine could be programmed to move.
The nano-machines of today are representative of the very early stages of any technology. Although the Nobel award winners have created a tiny elevator of sorts and even a “car” that scoots along a table, they’re a long way off from large-scale machinery on any functional level. In the future, though, scientists hope to use these developments to inspire myriad production methods: from actual machinery being built with atomic precision to inter-body uses for medical machinery. After all, they explain, the human body is already made up of millions of molecular machines.
The Nobel Committee likened the state of molecular machinery to the state of automotive development around the 1830s. All the fundamental building blocks exist, but there’s a lot to be learned about how the chemical components of the process work together to create something bigger. It’s an exciting time to be involved in chemical research, to be sure.