The Nobel prize in any field is usually awarded to a person who has reached the epitome in that particular area. Who has done something particularly extraordinary. Indeed, the Nobel prizes today — particularly those in the sciences — are associated with discoveries so fantastic that sometimes it becomes hard to believe that they have actually taken place. Something similar happened this year , when the Chemistry Nobel was awarded to a trio of scientists who have succeeded in making machines out of molecules.
This year’s Nobel prize for chemistry has been awarded to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart, and Bernard Feringa — each of them will be sharing the prize equally — for making machines that are up to a thousand times thinner than a strand of hair. What is more, these machines, which include a molecular car called the Nano Car, also come with tiny movable parts that move in controlled ways.
Creating machines at such a small level has been something of a pipe dream for scientists. Thanks to the research done by this trio though, the dream is significantly closer to coming to fruition. Celebrated Physicist Richard Feynman, who has authored countless theories in new Physics, was one of the first to recognize and point to the potential of the technology.
The applications of such a technology is of course, virtually limitless. We could exploit control at a molecular level in completely new and radical ways. For instance, nano vehicles could be used for drug delivery in a manner that is much more precise than what we are capable of today. Not only would such vehicles ensure that the medicines reach their targets, but it would also ensure that the side effects associated with these drugs are reduced.
Targeted drug delivery is just one of the advantages. From more robust systems that are able to repair themselves in case of minor faults, to computer chips that operate at a completely different level from what today’s technology is capable of, the potential of these systems is quite limitless.
All of the scientists in the trio that has been awarded the Nobel prize have been pioneers of the technology in their own ways. For example, Sauvage was responsible for discovering the science behind connecting two ring-shaped molecules. It was also his work that enabled the rotation of one ring to rotate around the other. Indeed, discovering rings that could rotate around each other was the first concrete step in the direction of molecular machines.
Next came Stoddart, who was able to thread a ring of molecules onto an axle. More importantly though, the ring he created could move along the axle on application of heat. So basically, that is where the first steps for creating molecular machines were taken. His work was followed by Ferringa, who created a molecular motor in 1999, which moved in a single direction when exposed to light.
Meanwhile, the applications of this technology are huge, exactly how huge, was aptly described by Bernard Feringa in a phone call to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
I feel a little bit like the Wright Brothers, who were flying 100 years ago for the first time. People were saying, ‘Why do we need a flying machine?’ And now we have a Boeing 747 and an Airbus.