Motors too small to see with the eye may soon have the power to drive innovations in chemistry, biology and computing. Three creators of such nanoscopic machines were honored October 5 with the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Recognition of the burgeoning field of molecular motors will draw more money and inspire children to become scientists, says Donna Nelson, an organic chemist at the University of Oklahoma in Norman and the president of the American Chemical Society. “It will benefit not only these three chemists, it will benefit the entire field of chemistry.”


In 1983, Sauvage described how to forge a molecular chain by creating a new type of mechanical bond. The technique relies on copper ions to glue together two halves of crescent-shaped molecules so that they interlock with rings. This work set the stage for chemists to create more intricate molecular structures, including knots and motors.
Chemists and physicists have envisioned molecular machines since at least the 1960s, but were never able to reliably produce complex structures. Then in 1983, Sauvage, of the University of Strasbourg in France, devised a method for making interlocking molecular rings, or catenanes. Sauvage’s molecular chain set the stage for the rest of the field .


Stoddart and colleagues devised molecular muscles composed of two interlocked molecular machines in a daisy chain. In 2000, Stoddart’s group demonstrated that the machines could expand and contract.

Feringa, of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, ramped things up another notch in 1999 by building the first molecular motor. Things move so differently at the molecular scale that many researchers weren’t sure anyone could precisely control the motion of molecular motors, says R. Dean Astumian of the University of Maine in Orono. Feringa’s innovation was to devise asymmetric molecules that would spin in one direction when hit with a pulse of light.


Feringa and colleagues bolted four molecular motors that all spin in the same direction to a tiny chassis, creating a “nanocar” that could bump along a surface.  

Stoddart, who was born in Edinburgh and moved to the United States in 1997, applauded the Nobel committee for recognizing “a piece of chemistry that is extremely fundamental in its making and being.” Sauvage, in particular, created a new type of molecular bond in order to forge his chain, Stoddart said during a news conference. “New chemical compounds are probably several thousand a day worldwide,” he said. “New chemical reactions, well, maybe a dozen or two a month. Maybe I go over the top there. But new bonds, they are few and far between. They are really the blue moons. So I think that’s what’s being recognized, more than anything.”

Source: Science News

Draft by: Juilee Mhatre


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