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Nobel Price for molecular machines

On Wednesday this week, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 was awarded to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, and Bernard L. Feringa for the design and production of molecular machines. What are molecular machines? These tiny machines are a thousand times thinner than a strand of hair and made of linked molecules with movable parts. 

Since the mid 20th century, chemists have been attempting to produce molecular chains in which ring-shaped molecules were linked together. Normally, covalent bonds hold the atoms in molecules together. In these chains, chemists wanted to create mechanical bonds, where molecules were interlocked without directly interacting with each other. In 1983, Jean-Pierre Sauvage used a copper ion to create molecular chains with a yield of 42%. These molecular chains, called catanenes, were early type of non-biological molecular machine. In 1994, Jean-Pierre Sauvage’s group succeeded in producing a catenane in which one ring rotated around the other ring when energy was added.

The second major step was completed by Fraser Stoddart in 1991, when he developed a rotaxane, in which a molecular ring was threaded onto a thin molecular axle. An electron-poor ring was threaded around an electron-rich axle. The addition of heat could be used to control the movement of the ring along the axle. Molecular lifts, artificial muscle and a molecule-based computer chip have since been created using rotaxanes.

Bernard Feringa was the fist person to develop a molecular motor in 1999. The motor consists of two flat chemical structures joined by a double bond between two carbon atoms. Methyl groups attached to each rotor blade function as ratchets that keep the molecule to keep rotating in the same direction. Exposure to UV light pulses cause the rotor blades to move 180 degrees around the central double bond. His group has optimized the motor so that it now spins at 12 million revolutions per second. Using molecular motors, he has rotated a glass cylinder that is 10,000 times bigger than the motor and also designed a nanocar.

The Laureates have started a toolbox of chemical structures that can be used to build increasingly advanced creations, such as a molecular robot that can grasp and connect amino acids and intricate webs of molecular motors that wind long polymers.

In the 1830s, when the electric motor was at the same stage, scientists could display various spinning cranks and wheels, but had no idea that the electric motor could like to instruments like washing machines, fans, and food processors. It’s interesting to imagine what the future could hold for molecular machines!


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