Quirks & Quarks

Nobel Prize in Chemistry for molecular machines

Sir Fraser Stoddart is one of three winners of the 2016 Nobel prize in Chemistry, awarded for his work in molecular machines.
Sir Fraser Stoddart is one of three scientists who won the 2016 Nobel Prize for chemistry for his work in molecular machines. (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford) (The Associated Press)
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This year the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to three scientists, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa, for the design and synthesis of molecular machines. You can't see molecular machines with your naked eye. Nor can you see them with a regular optical microscope. These are the tiniest machines in the world - one thousand times smaller than the width of a single human hair. They're basically molecules that can perform a task when energy is added. Back in 1991, Sir Fraser Stoddart from Northwestern University created a molecular machine called a rotaxane - a structure where a ring of atoms can rotate freely around and up and down an axle.


The potential applications for nanotechnology molecular machines are endless. The Nobel Committee compares the breakthroughs from the three scientists who won this year's Nobel chemistry prize to the first simple electric motors developed in the early 19th century. Back then, scientists developing those spinning cranks and wheels had no idea they would one day give rise to electric trains, washing machines, and even the simple, ceiling fans we have today. This award highlights the fact we might be on the verge of another revolution - but this time, on a molecular scale.

Fraser Stoddart in his office at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016. Stoddart is one of three scientists who won the 2016 Nobel Prize for chemistry for advances in a field that has big hopes for very tiny machines. (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford) (The Associated Press)

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