On Wednesday, October 5, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, and Bernard L. Feringa, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for creating machines that are a thousand times thinner than a hair strand! While is even more impressive is that the nanomotors are not made of pistons or gears — just a handful of molecules!
While researchers have been attempting to build molecular machines since 1959, it was not until 1983 that Sauvage, a professor at the University of Strasbourg, made the first breakthrough. Molecules, as you may know, join together through a chemical (covalent) bond that entails sharing of electrons between atoms. Sauvage’s team managed to change that natural affinity by devising a way to link two ring-shaped molecules together in a simple chain, using a copper ion. More importantly, they were able to do this without affecting the molecule’s ability to move around, thus setting the stage for the creation of nanomotors made of molecules.
In 1991, a group led by Northwestern University’s Professor Stoddart built on Sauvage’s research by mounting a ring of molecules onto an electron “axle.” When heat (energy) was applied, the molecules rotated back and forth on the simple electron track, in a controlled manner. The team used the technology to create all kinds of fun things, including a molecular elevator that can raise itself 0.7 nanometers above the surface of the ground, a microscopic muscle, and even a new kind of computer chip.
Dr. Bernard L. Feringa, a professor of organic chemistry at the Netherlands’ University of Groningen, took the tiny machines to the next level. In 1999, he built a working molecular motor and then, in 2011, a working car, complete with a small chassis and four molecular motors placed at each corner to serve as powered wheels! Since then, the team has been working on improving the efficiency of this minuscule vehicle that is invisible to the naked eye.
While the molecular machines are still in their infancy, they are being tested for some cutting-edge applications including developing artificial switches to release targeted drugs into the human body and inventing new ways to store energy.
To encourage researchers to continue developing these tiny machines, the Centre d’Élaboration de Matériaux et d’Etudes Structurales (CEMES-CNRS) in Toulouse, France has organized the first-ever NanoCar race. The “Grand Prix” will feature molecular vehicles powered by the energy of electrical pulses racing around a tiny, 100 nanometers long racetrack. CEMES-CNRS plans to use a special microscope to ensure that fans can see the tiny vehicles as they compete against each other on the equally small track. Initially scheduled for mid-October, the race had to be postponed to spring 2017 to give scientists additional time to develop the incredible vehicles.
Resources: vox.com, yahoo.news.com,nobelprize.org