Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded for 'the world's smallest machines'

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded jointly to researchers Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa "for their design and production of molecular machines."

Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa developed 'molecules with controllable movements'

Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa on Wednesday shared the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing 'molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added.' (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences/YouTube)

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded jointly to researchers Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa "for their design and production of molecular machines," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced on Wednesday morning in Stockholm.

"They have developed molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added," the organization said in a statement. 

The three scientists will share the prize, which is worth about $1.2 million Cdn (eight million kronor).

The work Sauvage, Stoddart and Feringa did relating to their Nobel-winning work was in France, the U.S. and the Netherlands, respectively. 

"I feel like I'm walking on air," Sauvage told reporters in Strasbourg, France, after learning of the win. "It would be hard not to feel like you were walking on air in a situation like this."

French scientist Jean-Pierre Sauvage, professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg, poses in a laboratory at the university on Wednesday after the announcement that he won the Chemistry Nobel Prize with J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

The award-winning work has "taken chemistry to a new dimension," the academy's statement said.

Each of the three researchers played a role in developing a molecular machine: 

  • Sauvage took the first step in 1983, when he was able to link two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain in which the parts could move relative to each other.
  • In 1991, Stoddart developed a "rotaxane," in which a molecular ring could move along a molecular axle. 
  • In 1999, Feringa developed a "molecular motor" by getting a "molecular rotor blade to spin continually in the same direction."
J. Fraser Stoddart, one of the winners of 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, poses for a portrait in the lab at Northwestern University in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, on Wednesday. (Jim Young/Reuters)

The academy compared the molecular motor's stage of development to where "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." 

"If you really want to go as far as the applications for molecular machines, you might want to think about anything that's in movement with tiny objects," Sauvage told reporters in French on Wednesday. "I don't know, we're talking about science fiction — mini-robots, micro-robots which will certainly be produced one day. They'll need joints, those joints will need to be able to move, so you might want to think about muscles, about wheels, systems to produce movement."

"Another possible area — once again, possible, we're still talking about science fiction — is nanomedicine, with the transportation of active molecules, molecules of medicine inside an organism."

The chemistry prize was the last of this year's Nobel 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 Peace Prize will be announced on Friday, and the economics and literature awards will be announced next week. 

All 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.

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press