Nobel Prizes

Who are the 2016 Nobel Chemistry winners?

Who are the 2016 Nobel Chemistry winners?
Explaining the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
A Frenchman, a Dutchman and a Scot are this year's winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, all thanks to very tiny machines.

READ ALSO: Live blog of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Bernard L Feringa, University of Groningen, Netherlands; Jean-Pierre Sauvage, University of Strasbourg, France; and Edinburgh-born J Fraser Stoddart, Northwestern University, US, were revealed as the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry at a press conference in Stockholm on Wednesday.

“I don't know what to say. I'm a bit shocked, I'm honoured and emotional,” said Feringa, addressing the room of Swedish and international journalists via a phone link from the Netherlands.

The trio will share the prize money of eight million kronor ($933,000).

The three scientists scooped the award “for their design and production of molecular machines”, said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which picks the Chemistry Laureates. “They have developed molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added.”

Sauvage began the journey towards creating a molecular machine in 1983, when he managed to link two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain, which enabled them to move relative to each other.

Stoddart then put a molecular ring around an axle and showed that the ring moved along the axle. It was called a rotaxane and he used it to develop a molecular lift, muscle and computer chip.

Feringa was the first person to develop a molecular motor, by making a molecular rotor blade spin continually in the same direction. He used this to, among other things, design a nanocar.

“2016's Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have taken molecular systems out of equilibrium's stalemate and into energy-filled states in which their movements can be controlled,” said the Royal Academy of Sciences in a press summary.

“In terms of development, the molecular motor is at the same stage as the electric motor was in the 1830s, when scientists displayed various spinning cranks and wheels, unaware that they would lead to electric trains, washing machines, fans and food processors. Molecular machines will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems.”

Feringa told the press conference that the molecular machines could potentially be used to inject into a bloodstream to find cancer cells. One of the Nobel judges, Jan-Erling Bäckvall of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and Professor of Organic Chemistry at Stockholm University, told The Local that it was still a long way off, but that Feringa's vision was not unthinkable.

“If you can ask a molecule to react on certain stimulae when they pass close to a cancer cell, it's thinkable. It's still a speculation of course and we don't know if it can be realized, but there is something to it,” he said.

“For me it's very exciting, especially when you have created [the molecular machines] from scratch. There are motors in nature, biological motors, but if you start from building them by synthesis, molecules – you couldn't control the movement of molecules before these discoveries. Now you can actually make them rotate, not only in one direction, you can induce a motion in a molecule. This is groundbreaking,” added Bäckvall.

Read more of our interview with Nobel judge Jan-Erling Bäckvall here, including his thoughts on robots and how he personally knows one of the winners.

Article by The Local's Emma Löfgren and Lee Roden