'Nano-machines' win European trio chemistry Nobel prize

Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa will share prize for their design and synthesis of the ‘world’s smallest machines’

A European trio of chemists have won the Nobel prize in chemistry for developing “nano-machines”, an advance that paved the way for the world’s first smart materials.

Sir Fraser Stoddart, from Scotland, Bernard Feringa, from the Netherlands, and Jean-Pierre Sauvage, from France, will share the 8m Swedish kronor (£718,000) prize announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm today.

The Nobel committee described the tools developed by the chemists as the “world’s smallest machines”. The technology is already being used to create medical micro-robots and self-healing materials that can repair themselves without human intervention.

In living organisms, cells work as molecular machines to power our organs, regulate temperature and repair damage. The Nobel trio were among the first to replicate this kind of function in synthetic molecules, by working out how to convert chemical energy into mechanical motion.

This allowed them to construct molecular devices a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair, including switches, motors, shuttles and even something resembling a motorcar.

The advances have allowed scientists to develop materials that will reconfigure and adapt by themselves depending on their environment - for instance contracting with heat, or opening up to deliver drugs when they arrive at a target site in the body.

In an interview following the announcement, Feringa said that winning the prize had been “such a great surprise. I’m so honoured and also emotional about it,” he said.

He added that it had also been a shock when he succeeded in developing the first function: he “could hardly believe it worked”.

Göran Hansson, secretary general of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, said: “The laureates have opened this entire field of molecular machinery. They have shown it is possible to make a machine at the molecular scale.”

The Nobel committee compared the trio’s breakthrough to the first crude electric motors in the 1830s, when scientists were unaware that spinning cranks and wheels would eventually lead to electric trains, washing machines, fans and food processors.

Mark Miodownik, professor of materials and society at the University College London, said that the advent of nano-machines could transform the very fabric of cities.

“If you want infrastructure that looks after itself - and I think we do - I’m pretty sure we’re going to be moving towards self-healing systems,” he said. “We’ll have plastic pipes that can repair themselves or a bridge that when it gets cracked has these machines that rebuild the bridge at a microscopic scale. It’s just beginning. The potential is really immense.”

Prince Charles famously raised the spectre of a “grey goo” catastrophe in which the types of micro-machines first designed by the laureates replicate and devour the planet. However, Feringa told the Stockholm press conference that he didn’t have apocalyptic nightmares about his inventions. “We have to think about how we can handle these things safely,” he said. “But I’m not so worried about that ... We will have the opportunity to build in safety devices if that is needed.”

Sauvage, professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg, made the first step towards a molecular machine in the 1980s, when he succeeded in linking two ring-shaped molecules together paper-chain style, and later showed one ring structure could rotate freely relative to the other.

Speaking to the French TV channel iTele this morning, Sauvage said: “I have won many prizes, but the Nobel prize is something very special, it’s the most prestigious prize, the one most scientists don’t even dare to dream of in their wildest dreams.”

In the 1990s, Stoddart, who is based at Northwestern University, Illinois, built the first molecular wheel - a free-moving ring structure on an axle that was later used to develop a molecular muscle and an abacus that could act as a computer chip. Feringa, who works at the University of Groningen pioneered the nano-motor, first showing that a molecular rotor blade could be made to spin continually in the same direction. He later put four of these together to make a car smaller than the width of a human hair that could “drive” across a surface.

Stoddart’s daughter, Alison, who is chief editor of the journal Nature Reviews Materials, said her father had always been driven and passionate when it came to his research. “It wasn’t a particularly trendy field of chemistry many decades ago but my Dad stuck at it,” she told the Guardian. “I remember when I was a kid, he came home from a trip to Stockholm with a chocolate Nobel prize. Now he has a real one!”

Last year, the Nobel prize in chemistry went to Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar for their research into the mechanisms that cells use to repair DNA. Their work mapped and explained how the cell repairs its DNA in order to prevent errors occurring in genetic information.

The 2016 Nobel in medicine or physiology was awarded on Monday to the Japanese cell biologist, Yoshinori Ohsumi, for discoveries on how cells break down and recycle their own components, a process known as autophagy. On Tuesday, three British physicists, David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz, won the physics prize for their work on exotic states of matter.

The winner of the peace prize will be announced on Friday and the economics prize will be announced on Monday 10 October.


Hannah Devlin

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Nobel prize in chemistry awarded for method to visualise biomolecules
Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson receive £825,000 prize for developing method for generating 3D images of life-building structures

Hannah Devlin and Nicola Davis

04, Oct, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
Nobel prize in chemistry awarded for work on lithium-ion batteries
John B Goodenough, M Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino honoured for sparking a portable technology revolution

Nicola Davis and Hannah Devlin

09, Oct, 2019 @3:19 PM

Article image
Frances H Arnold, George P Smith and Gregory P Winter win Nobel prize in chemistry
Briton and two Americans honoured for using evolutionary principles to develop proteins that have been used in new drugs and medical treatments

Nicola Davis

03, Oct, 2018 @12:25 PM

Article image
Nobel prize for chemistry awarded to trio for pioneering microscope work
Winners made it possible to see features at the scale of billionths of a metre, smashing a theoretical barrier for optical microscopy

Ian Sample, science editor

08, Oct, 2014 @10:41 AM

Article image
Three ‘click chemistry’ scientists share Nobel prize
Carolyn Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and double winner Barry Sharpless devised way to click molecules together

Ian Sample Science editor

05, Oct, 2022 @10:13 AM

Article image
What is cryo-electron microscopy, the Nobel prize-winning technique?
The 2017 chemistry laureates were recognised for developing cryo-electron microscopy. But what is it, why is it exciting and where will it take us next?

Nicola Davis

04, Oct, 2017 @3:32 PM

Article image
James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo win Nobel prize for medicine
American and Japanese immunologists win 2018 award for their work on cancer therapy

Hannah Devlin

01, Oct, 2018 @2:27 PM

Article image
Nobel prize in chemistry awarded for pioneering work on proteins – live
Americans Frances H Arnold and George P Smith and Briton Gregory P Winter will share the prize of 9m Swedish kronor (£770,000)

Ian Sample Science editor

03, Oct, 2018 @11:25 AM

Article image
Nobel Prize in Chemistry for dogged work on 'impossible' quasicrystals

Daniel Shechtman, who has won the chemistry Nobel for discovering quasicrystals, was initially lambasted for 'bringing disgrace' on his research group

Ian Sample, science correspondent

05, Oct, 2011 @4:47 PM

Article image
Nobel prize in chemistry for nailing receptors behind fight-or-flight

Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka share Nobel for discovering molecular switches that underpin cells' response to environment

Ian Sample, science correspondent

10, Oct, 2012 @3:37 PM