Three chemists have won science’s biggest prize for their work on super-tiny machines. The scientists, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart, and Bernard L. Feringa, were jointly given the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and will share the award money, equal to about $930,000.
The scientists helped advance a field called nanotechnology—the science of building structures less than a billionth of a meter in size. That’s about one thousandth the width of a human hair.
Sauvage, Stoddart, and Feringa laid the groundwork for making tiny machines built from moving molecules. Molecules are two or more atoms (the smallest units of matter) bonded together. The pioneering researchers created things like miniature motors and even a microscopic car.
The road to creating tiny machines started with chemists working out how to make basic parts out of molecules. In 1983, Sauvage was the first to link together two ring-shaped molecules. The molecules were connected physically, like links on a chain, rather than through chemical bonds. These attractive forces are what usually hold atoms together.
In 1991, Stoddart created a ring-shaped molecule that slid back and forth on a dumbbell-shaped molecule. Then in 1999, Feringa went a step further. He created a molecular motor—a tiny, spinning wheel powered by light. He then used his motor design to build a four-wheeled nano-car.
More to Come
There are no uses yet for the scientists’ tiny creations. But they’re excited about what the future may hold for the world’s smallest machines. The inventors believe the devices could eventually be used to create new materials and sensors.
Feringa imagines even bigger possibilities. “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,” he said to journalists after the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced this year’s Nobel winners.