The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded for the development of the world’s smallest machines, including tiny lift, artificial muscles and miniscule motors.
Jean-Pierre Sauvage, University of Strasbourg, France, Sir J Fraser Stoddart, Northwestern University, USA, and Bernard L Feringa, University of Groningen, the Netherlands were awarded the accolade for the design and synthesis of molecular machines.
The three prize recipients developed molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added.
The development of computing demonstrates how the miniaturisation of technology can lead to a revolution. The 2016 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have miniaturised machines and taken chemistry to a new dimension.
The first step towards a molecular machine was taken by Sauvage in 1983, when he succeeded in linking two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain, called a catenane. Normally, molecules are joined by strong covalent 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 second step was taken by Stoddart in 1991, when he developed a rotaxane. 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 based on rotaxanes are a molecular lift, a molecular muscle and a molecule-based computer chip.
Feringa was the first person to develop a molecular motor; in 1999 he got a molecular rotor blade to spin continually in the same direction. Using molecular motors, he has rotated a glass cylinder that is 10 000 times bigger than the motor and also designed a nanocar.
2016’s Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have taken molecular systems out of equilibrium’s stalemate and into energy-filled states in which their movements can be controlled.
In terms of development, 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.
Molecular machines will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems.
Meanwhile, the Nobel Prize in Physics 2016 has gone to David J Thouless, University of Washington, USA, F Duncan M Haldane, Princeton University, USA and J Michael Kosterlitz, Brown University, USA for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.
This year’s laureates opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states. They have used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films.
Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter. Many people are hopeful of future applications in both materials science and electronics.
The three laureates’ use of topological concepts in physics was decisive for their discoveries. Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes properties that only change step-wise. Using topology as a tool, they were able to astound the experts.
In the early 1970s, Michael Kosterlitz and David Thouless overturned the then current theory that superconductivity or suprafluidity could not occur in thin layers. They demonstrated that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures and also explained the mechanism, phase transition, that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures.
In the 1980s, Thouless was able to explain a previous experiment with very thin electrically conducting layers in which conductance was precisely measured as integer steps. He showed that these integers were topological in their nature. At around the same time, Duncan Haldane discovered how topological concepts can be used to understand the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials.
We now know of many topological phases, not only in thin layers and threads, but also in ordinary three-dimensional materials. Over the last decade, this area has boosted frontline research in condensed matter physics, not least because of the hope that topological materials could be used in new generations of electronics and superconductors, or in future quantum computers. Current research is revealing the secrets of matter in the exotic worlds discovered by this year’s Nobel Laureates.