Molecules made machines: chemistry taken to a new dimension

24 noviembre 2016

It might still seem sci-fi for most, but molecular machines are already a reality. And the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 has been awarded to Jean-Pierre Sauvage (University of Strasbourg, France), Sir J. Fraser Stoddart (Northwestern University, US) and Bernard L. Feringa (University of Groninger, the Netherlands) for its design and production.

NOBEL PRIZE IN CHEMISTRY 2016

Molecules made machines: chemistry taken to a new dimension

It might still seem sci-fi for most, but molecular machines are already a reality. And the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 has been awarded to Jean-Pierre Sauvage (University of Strasbourg, France), Sir J. Fraser Stoddart (Northwestern University, US) and Bernard L. Feringa (University of Groninger, the Netherlands) for its design and production.

The basic definition of molecular machines says that they are molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added. And that means a whole new revolution as it might take the miniaturisation of technology to a level that is still hard to imagine.

Three stages on a revolutionary road

Jean-Pierre Sauvage succeeded in linking two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain without sharing electrons, just by a mechanical bod, and with both parts able to move relative to each other. That was back in 1983 and the result was called a catenane. That was the first step towards molecular machines, followed by the rotaxane created by Fraser Stoddard in 1991. This time, a molecular ring was threaded onto a thin molecular axle, and the ring was able to move along the axle.

 


Some years later, in 1999, Bernard Feringa got to develop the very first molecular motor: a molecular rotor blade to spin continually in the same direction. Since then, he has been able to use molecular motors to rotate a gas cylinder that is 10,000 bigger than the motor. And he claims to have designed a nanocar.

 


Smaller than a virus, as big as our imagination

"Supramolecular chemistry allows us to imagine new structures that have never been created before, you can just draw them on paper and build them up", explains Pablo Gaviña, a lecturer in Organic Chemistry at the Universitat de València that worked with Jean-Pierre Sauvage in Strasbourg during a postdoctoral stay between 1995 and 1997. The limit, therefore, is our imagination.

The size, however, is hard to picture: we are talking of whole machines smaller than a single cell, "smaller than the simplest virus". The clue is how exactly can they be applied in several fields. It has been said that, in terms of development, the molecular motor is right now at the same stage as the electric motor was in the 1830s.

 


"The key now is how to connect these tiny molecular machines with the macroscopic world, and that is why there are several projects underway to try to fix them on surfaces or new materials that might get an amplified signal", explains Pablo Gaviña. "Right now we are not still able to foresee the range of applications of the molecular machines, and we will need some time to develop most of them, but there is no doubt that they will become true". Actually, there are some clear examples already, such as the construction of molecular electronics systems or compounds, nano-scaled switch systems, several computing nano-systems and even some applications in biological systems, like drug-releasing nano-machines. Molecular machines are also expected to be used in the development of sensors and energy storage systems.

 

CREDIT: Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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