A European trio of chemists have won the Nobel prize in chemistry for developing “nano-machines”, an advance that paved the way for the world’s first smart materials.
Sir Fraser Stoddart, from Scotland, Bernard Feringa, from the Netherlands, and Jean-Pierre Sauvage, from France, will share the 8m Swedish kronor (£718,000) prize announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm today.
The Nobel committee described the tools developed by the chemists as the “world’s smallest machines”. The technology is already being used to create medical micro-robots and self-healing materials that can repair themselves without human intervention.
In living organisms, cells work as molecular machines to power our organs, regulate temperature and repair damage. The Nobel trio were among the first to replicate this kind of function in synthetic molecules, by working out how to convert chemical energy into mechanical motion.
This allowed them to construct molecular devices a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair, including switches, motors, shuttles and even something resembling a motorcar.
The advances have allowed scientists to develop materials that will reconfigure and adapt by themselves depending on their environment - for instance contracting with heat, or opening up to deliver drugs when they arrive at a target site in the body.