Three scientists won a Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for advances in a field that has big hopes for very tiny machines — the smallest ever built.
Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Scottish-born Fraser Stoddart and Dutch scientist Bernard “Ben” Feringa were honored for making devices the size of molecules, so tiny that a lineup of 1,000 would stretch about the width of a human hair.
Someday, experts say, such devices might lead to benefits like better computer chips and batteries, and tiny shuttles that could be injected into patients to deliver drugs directly to infections and tumors. But that’s a long ways away.
“There are not big applications looming up tomorrow,” Stoddart, 74, a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who became a U.S. citizen in 2011, told The Associated Press.
“I applaud the fact that for once in chemistry Stockholm has recognized a piece of chemistry that is extremely fundamental in its making and being,” he later told a news conference.
Feringa, 65, is a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Sauvage, 71, is professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg and director of research emeritus at France’s National Center for Scientific Research.
The three men share the 8 million kronor ($930,000) prize, having “taken chemistry to a new dimension,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
Stoddart said when he got the phone call from Stockholm to tell him he had won, he initially suspected a hoax. When told he was sharing the prize with “two very good friends … I could relax.”
Speaking to the French TV channel itele, Sauvage called the news a memorable moment and a big surprise.
“I have won many prizes, but the Nobel Prize is something very special. It’s the most prestigious prize, the one most scientists don’t even dare to dream of in their wildest dreams,” he said.
Feringa told reporters in Stockholm by phone, “I feel a little bit like the Wright brothers, who were flying 100 years ago for the first time and then people were saying, ‘Why do we need a flying machine?’ And now we have a Boeing 747 and an Airbus. So that is a bit how I feel.”
The academy said Sauvage made the first breakthrough in 1983 when he linked two ring-shaped molecules together in such a way that they could move in relation to each other. Moving parts are key to a machine, the academy said.
Stoddart took the next step in 1991 by threading a molecular ring onto a molecular axle and showing the ring could move back and forth. By 1994, he could completely control that movement. His group later built a tiny elevator-like machine and an artificial muscle.
Feringa built the first molecular motor in 1999, a molecule that could be made to spin in just one direction. He leads a research group that in 2011 built a “nanocar,” a minuscule vehicle with four molecular motors as wheels.
The academy said the laureates’ work has inspired other researchers to build increasingly advanced molecular machinery, including a robot that can grasp and connect amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
Dean Astumian, a physics professor at U of Maine in Orono, stressed that the field is still very young, rather like when people first had the lever and the wheel.
At first, they combined those tools in simple ways to do simple tasks, but over time they learned to assemble them in ever-more complicated ways to do increasingly dramatic things, he said.
As for molecular machines, “I think we are at the point where people have put together the levers and the wheels in simple ways at present. But partly as a result of the awarding of the prize in this area, he said, it’s going to take off,” with the creation of more complicated and useful devices.
Donna Nelson, president of the American Chemical Society, agreed that Wednesday’s prize will generate attention for the field.
And given the topic, “children are going to love it,” she said. “They’re the scientists of tomorrow.”
The chemistry prize was the last of this year’s science awards. The medicine prize went to a Japanese biologist who discovered the process by which a cell breaks down and recycles content. The physics prize was shared by three British-born scientists for theoretical discoveries that shed light on strange states of matter.
The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday, and the economics and literature awards will be announced next week.
The Nobel Prizes will be handed out at ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.
Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, wanted his awards to honor achievements that delivered the “greatest benefit to mankind.”