2016 Nobel Prize – Chemistry – Tiny Machines win

the_nobel_prize_in_chemistryAnd so today it is on to the third of the big three Nobel Prizes.

The announcement of a Nobel award is always a surprise. If you ever hear about a claim that somebody was once nominated for a Nobel prize but did not actually win, then unless it was a nomination that is fifty or more years old you can be damn sure that it is not true. All the nominations are kept secret and even after the official announcement, nobody gets to find out who the other candidates were. This is because they have a 50 year rule that surpasses all such details. As for the winners, when announced it is a surprise to not only the public and also the press, but also to the winners themselves, they get no advanced warning, not even a hint.

Those who did not win .. but should have.

Sometimes the surprise is not who won, but rather who did not. For example Dmitri Mendeleev created the periodic table, and so was perhaps the ideal candidate for the Nobel prize in Chemistry, but alas he was never granted it.

Since it was over 50 years ago we now know that he came within just one vote of winning in 1906, and might perhaps have won it a few years later. Unfortunately he died in 1907, so 1906 was his only shot at it.

Not granting it to him was very much down to just one dissenter on the Nobel Committee who disagreed with his work. History now reveals that whoever that was really got this wrong because the periodic table still stands today.

Those who did win … and really should not have.

Sometimes the award granted is not exactly a surprise, but more of a shock, and I don’t mean for the winner, but for everybody else.

In 1918 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was given to Fritz Haber. He got the prize for his invention of the Haber-Bosch process, the method used in industry to synthesize ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen gases, and that was then used for the large-scale synthesis of explosives. Now do remember that this award was given in 1918, a rather notable date that had seen the deployment of explosives on an industrial scale during the previous four years. Nobel himself decided to dedicate his entire fortune for the prize in his will when he read a premature obituary which condemned him for profiting from the sales of arms, so yes, awarding Nobel’s prize to a chap for coming up with a way to synthesise explosives just at the end of World War 1 is controversial.

However, that was not the primary issue. The core shock value here is that Mr Haber was the “father of chemical warfare” and had at that time spent many years pioneering the weaponising of chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I. He was not simply some backroom boffin who dreamed up such stuff without fully understanding the consequences, he was on the front line with the rank of captain. There he vigorously promoted the use of, and personally deployed, chemical weapons despite the fact that Germany had signed the Hague Convention of 1907 that banned their use. His wife was so shocked at his actions during the war that she ended up shooting herself with his service revolver in 1915. He was basically an amoral shit. When the award was announced it left everybody thinking “WTF”.

The Chemistry Award is not actually just Chemistry

So yes, sometimes the Nobel committee do get it very very wrong. However, we should not let that detract from the observation that most of the time the nominated winner truly does deserve the prize. Recent examples include …

One rather interesting observation is that this “Chemistry” prize appears to have been granted to quite a few non-chemists for things that are not actually Chemistry at all.

So why would they be granting Chemistry awards for work in the fields of biochemistry or molecular biology, and even a materials scientist, instead of Chemistry?

The answer is that this is a reflection of the fact that the committee are constrained by the articles within Mr Nobel’s will, and so they are striving to operate within that remit, and yet are also attempting to widen the scope to reflect what is actually happening in science today.

As for the 2016 prize … now this is amazing stuff …

Official Press Release: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016

5 October 2016

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 to

Jean-Pierre Sauvage
University of Strasbourg, France

Sir J. Fraser Stoddart
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA


Bernard L. Feringa
University of Groningen, the Netherlands

“for the design and synthesis of molecular machines”


They developed the world’s smallest machines

A tiny lift, artificial muscles and miniscule motors. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 is awarded to Jean-Pierre SauvageSir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa for their design and production of molecular machines. They have developed molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added.

The development of computing demonstrates how the miniaturisation of technology can lead to a revolution. The 2016 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have miniaturised machines and taken chemistry to a new dimension.

The first step towards a molecular machine was taken by Jean-Pierre Sauvage in 1983, when he succeeded in linking two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain, called a catenane. Normally, molecules are joined by strong covalent bonds in which the atoms share electrons, but in the chain they were instead linked by a freer mechanical bond. For a machine to be able to perform a task it must consist of parts that can move relative to each other. The two interlocked rings fulfilled exactly this requirement.

The second step was taken by Fraser Stoddart in 1991, when he developed a rotaxane. He threaded a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle and demonstrated that the ring was able to move along the axle. Among his developments based on rotaxanes are a molecular lift, a molecular muscle and a molecule-based computer chip.

Bernard Feringa was the first person to develop a molecular motor; in 1999 he got a molecular rotor blade to spin continually in the same direction. Using molecular motors, he has rotated a glass cylinder that is 10,000 times bigger than the motor and also designed 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. 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.

Read more about this year’s prize

Popular Information
Pdf 567 kB

Scientific Background
Pdf 804 Kb

To read the text you need Acrobat Reader.

Image – Elastic molecular structure (pdf 828 kB)

Image – Molecular elevator (pdf 978 kB)

Image – Molecular chain (pdf 813 kb)

Image – Molecular motor (pdf 820 kb)

Image – Molecular shuttle (pdf 8902 kb)

Image – Molecular knots (pdf 820 kb)

Image – Nanocar (pdf 874 kb)

All illustrations: Copyright © Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences


Jean-Pierre Sauvage, born 1944 in Paris, France. Ph.D. 1971 from the University of Strasbourg, France. Professor Emeritus at the University of Strasbourg and Director of Research Emeritus at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), France.

Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, born 1942 in Edinburgh, UK. Ph.D. 1966 from Edinburgh University, UK. Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA.

Bernard L. Feringa, born 1951 in Barger-Compascuum, the Netherlands. Ph.D.1978 from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Professor in Organic Chemistry at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.


Prize amount: 8 million Swedish krona, to be shared equally between the Laureates.
Further information: http://kva.se and http://nobelprize.org

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