By Anke Henrich
The combined knowledge of researchers Jean-Pierre Sauvage (France), Fraser Stoddart (Great Britain) and Bernard Feringa (Netherlands) has resulted in something that sounds like it has been taken straight from science fiction. Or at least something that is extremely difficult to imagine: the smallest machine in the world. To be precise, this is a molecular machine on the nanometer scale - making it one thousand times smaller than a human hair.
Possible areas of application include minute robots which can zip around the human body, looking for tumors or dispensing medicine, minuscule energy stores or intelligent materials which can adapt to their environments.
The path from idea to reality was long. Chemistry professor Sauvage initially developed a new method of connecting molecular chains in 1983. Fraser Stoddart, a professor in nanosciences, then began working on a molecular shuttle which travels between two points, while Feringa, who is also a chemistry professor, constructed a type of molecular car with all-wheel drive and a molecular robot which can connect amino acids.
Thanks to all these scientific breakthroughs, we are now able to link molecules mechanically as well as chemically. The molecules can be moved against each other almost without friction, and as a nanomotor, they turn as soon as they receive energy from a UV light or a heat source.
The three scientists were rewarded for their efforts and persistence when they received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2016. The prize committee is convinced: "Molecular microchips can revolutionize computer technology in the same way that silicon transistors once did." The mechanical engineering industry could now also be facing a miniaturization revolution. Time will tell which applications can be implemented. "But people laughed when the first electrical machines were built and now they rule our daily lives," said the committee.