The 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Sir J.Fraser Stoddart, Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Bernard L. Feringa for their design and production of molecular machines.

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The work of Stoddart (Northwestern University in the US) Feringa (University of Groningen in the Netherlands) and Sauvage (University of Strasbourg, France) has allowed the development of miniaturised machines that operate on the nanoscale.

The machines are based on molecules with controllable movements, which are able to perform a task when energy is added.

Speaking at the announcement of the prize, Feringa had this to say: “The opportunities are great when you are able to introduce dynamic change to materials you can make materials that will change and adapt themselves.”

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Jean-Pierre Sauvage was responsible for the first step, all the way back in 1983, when he successfully linked two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain, called a catenane. Normally, molecules are joined by strong covalent bonds, but in the chain, they were linked by a freer mechanical bond instead. The two rings were able to move relative to one another, which is vital for a machine to perform tasks.

The next step was taken by Fraser Stoddart, who was born in Scotland. In 1991he developed arotaxane by threading molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle and was able to get the ring to move along the axle. Among his development based on rotaxanes are a molecular lift, a molecular muscle and a molecule-based computer chip.

And then in 1999, Bernard Fearing was the first person to develop a molecular motor. The key to this was in the ability to make a molecular rotor blade to spin continually in the same direction.

Although tiny in scale, molecular motors are still very powerful. Feringa managed to demonstrate that his motor can rotate a glass cylinder that is 10,000 bigger than the motor.

The prize money will be shared between the three winners equally.

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