Trio wins Chem­istry No­bel for molec­u­lar ma­chines

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

A French, Bri­tish and Dutch trio of sci­en­tists won the No­bel Chem­istry Prize yes­ter­day for de­vel­op­ing the world’s small­est ma­chines that may one day act as ar­ti­fi­cial mus­cles to power tiny ro­bots or even pros­thetic limbs. Jean-Pierre Sau­vage of France, Fraser Stod­dart of Bri­tain and Bernard Feringa of the Nether­lands “have de­vel­oped mol­e­cules with con­trol­lable move­ments, which can per­form a task when en­ergy is added,” the jury said.

In­spired by pro­teins that nat­u­rally act as bi­o­log­i­cal ma­chines within cells, these syn­thetic copies are usu­ally made up of a few mol­e­cules fused to­gether. Also called nanoma­chines or nanobots, they can be put to work as tiny mo­tors, ratch­ets, pis­tons or wheels to pro­duce me­chan­i­cal mo­tion in re­sponse to stim­uli such as light or tem­per­a­ture change.

Molec­u­lar ma­chines can move ob­jects many times their size. “The molec­u­lar mo­tor is at the same stage as 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,” the No­bel jury said.

Molec­u­lar ma­chines will “most likely be used in the devel­op­ment of things such as new ma­te­ri­als, sen­sors and en­ergy stor­age sys­tems,” it added. The three lau­re­ates will share the eight mil­lion Swedish kro­nor (around $933,000) prize equally.

Feringa, a 65-year-old pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Gronin­gen, told re­porters at the No­bel press con­fer­ence the prizewin­ning re­search of­fered great op­por­tu­ni­ties for the fu­ture. “I feel a lit­tle bit like the Wright brothers, who were fly­ing 100 years ago for the first time. And then peo­ple were say­ing, ‘why do we need fly­ing ma­chines?’ And now we’ve got the Boe­ing 747 and the Air­bus,” he said by video link. “We will build those smart ma­te­ri­als in the fu­ture. That is a big op­por­tu­nity - ma­te­ri­als that will re­con­fig­u­rate, that will change, that will adapt them­selves, that have prop­er­ties that can change be­cause they pick up a sig­nal.”

The first step towards a molec­u­lar ma­chine was taken by Sau­vage in 1983, when he suc­ceeded in link­ing to­gether two ring-shaped mol­e­cules to form a chain. Nor­mally, mol­e­cules are joined by strong bonds in which the atoms share elec­trons, but in the chain they were in­stead linked by a freer me­chan­i­cal bond. “For a ma­chine to be able to per­form a task it must con­sist of parts that can move rel­a­tive to each other. The two in­ter­locked rings ful­filled ex­actly this re­quire­ment,” the No­bel jury said.

Sau­vage, 71, told AFP he was “very sur­prised” and “felt enor­mously happy” to win the prize. He is the di­rec­tor of re­search emer­i­tus at France’s Na­tional Cen­ter for Sci­en­tific Re­search (CNRS). The sec­ond step was taken by Stod­dart in 1991, when he threaded a molec­u­lar ring onto a thin molec­u­lar axle and demon­strated that the ring was able to move along the axle. “Among his de­vel­op­ments... are a molec­u­lar lift, a molec­u­lar mus­cle and a mol­e­cule-based com­puter chip,” the jury said.

Stod­dart, 74, is a pro­fes­sor of chem­istry at North­west­ern Univer­sity in the US. Grow­ing up on a farm in Scot­land with­out elec­tric­ity or any mod­ern­day con­ve­niences, he oc­cu­pied him­self do­ing jig­saw puz­zles, a pas­time that helped him rec­og­nize shapes and see how they can be linked to­gether. His fas­ci­na­tion with shapes con­tin­ued in his re­search: the ring­shaped mol­e­cule me­chan­i­cally at­tached to an axle that he de­vel­oped is called a “ro­tax­ane”.

Hon­oured by Bri­tain’s Queen El­iz­a­beth II with the ti­tle of knight bach­e­lor in 2006, Stod­dart told AFP of his No­bel prize: “I’m sur­prised, I’m thrilled, I’m over­joyed”. He said he, Sau­vage and Feringa were “the very clos­est of friends... We’re al­most what I would call sci­en­tific brothers.” Stod­dart, whose wife died of breast can­cer in the late 1990s, said their tech­nol­ogy could be used to treat can­cer in the fu­ture. “You can con­trol a drug and not have it come all at once, so it can last much longer and be used much more ef­fi­ciently with a smaller dose than the of­ten hard-core can­cer treat­ments, for ex­am­ple.”

Feringa was mean­while the first per­son to de­velop a molec­u­lar mo­tor - in 1999 he was able to make a molec­u­lar ro­tor blade to spin con­tin­u­ally in the same di­rec­tion. Us­ing molec­u­lar mo­tors, he has also de­signed a nanocar. Like Stod­dart, Feringa was raised on a farm and was at­tracted to chem­istry by its end­less op­por­tu­ni­ties for cre­ativ­ity. When he pro­duced the first molec­u­lar mo­tor in 1999, he suc­ceeded in get­ting it to spin in one di­rec­tion.

Nor­mally, mol­e­cules’ move­ments are gov­erned by chance; on av­er­age, a spin­ning mol­e­cule moves as many times to the right as to the left. But Feringa was able to de­sign a mol­e­cule that was me­chan­i­cally con­structed to spin in a par­tic­u­lar di­rec­tion. The work of the three lau­re­ates has cre­ated a molec­u­lar tool­box to build in­creas­ingly ad­vanced cre­ations, the jury said. — AFP

Jean-Pierre Sau­vage James Fraser Stod­dart Bernard Feringa

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