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3 Chemists Share Nobel Prize For Work On 'Molecular Machines'


This morning's Nobel Prize is for chemistry. And it will be shared by three scientists who've figured out how to make tiny machines. These machines are a thousand times smaller than a human hair, and they are not just fanciful. The technology could someday be used in computers, for energy storage and other ideas still just imagined. Joining me now is NPR's science correspondent, Richard Harris. Good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And who are these three winners?

HARRIS: Well, it's an international group. Part of the prize goes to Jean-Pierre Sauvage at the University of Strasbourg in France. Another share goes to J. Fraser Stoddart, who is a Scottish-born scientist, who's now at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. - and Bernard Feringa, at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. And the story of their discovery actually stretches back more than 30 years.

MONTAGNE: All right. So tell us that story.

HARRIS: Well, as you suggested, it's all about tiny machines. Scientists and science fiction writers have, of course, been dreaming about machines on a molecular scale for a really long time. And in fact, biology has already invented these things - if you think of mechanical devices like the tiny flagella, the little whip on the end of bacteria that spin around and help the bacteria move. So biology figured this out billions of years ago, and people are catching up. But how could people build them from scratch? That's the question.

And there are two basic requirements. First, you need moving parts, and then you need some way to power the moving pieces. And the first real breakthrough here, according to the Nobel Committee, came in 1983. That's when Jean-Pierre Sauvage figured out how to link together two chemical rings. But instead of using those rigid chemical bonds that you're used to seeing in your chemistry book or whatever, he actually threaded them together like links in a chain.

MONTAGNE: But Richard, a chain isn't exactly a machine. Is it?

HARRIS: No, it's not. But it's certainly a step in the right direction. And the next advance came from Fraser Stoddart, who built on the concept of interlocking rings by threading a ring around a straight rod - like an axle, right? So it's starting to sound more like a familiar machine, isn't it?

MONTAGNE: Yeah, right.

HARRIS: Yeah. And he's been exploring how to make use of that. Among other things, he figured out how to use this ring-around-the-axle system to build tiny molecular-sized elevators. By 1994, he'd figured out how to make the ring jump from one end of the axle to another. So he now had a machine that could actually do work at this scale.

MONTAGNE: You know, this is getting pretty impressive, I must say.

HARRIS: It's amazing, isn't it?

MONTAGNE: I've got this picture of these little - OK, tiny elevators. Where does the third laureate come into the picture?

HARRIS: Yeah, Bernard Feringa in the Netherlands has been figuring out how to power these machines - because remember, you need to have movement. You have to have power source. And so normally, molecules this small just move randomly. But as the Nobel Committee explains, Feringa figured out how to design molecules that could move in a specific direction - molecules, in fact, that spin like the wheels of a car.

And in 2001, his group built a four-wheel-drive nanocar with four spinning wheels. And he's been gradually improving on this technology to the point that these molecules can now spin pretty fast, like 12 million revolutions per second.

MONTAGNE: Now this is all fascinating. So what's it all good for?

HARRIS: Well, the Nobel Committee describes all of this as a molecular tool box that can be used to explore the world of tiny machines and build upon it, of course. And they say it's the - I'm quoting - "the first steps into a new world." Technology at this scale already exists, right? Think of computer chips, which exist at the nanoscale or these nanoparticle coatings on materials. But what technologist wouldn't want to manipulate material at this tiny scale?

Honestly, we have a long way to go though. The Nobel Committee says that the molecular motor is at the same stage of development as the electric motor was back in the 1830s - gives you a sense of how much headroom for improvement we have. It's really the cutting edge of technology. And like most things that are just, you know, starting out, where it could lead is anybody's guess.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, thanks very much. NPR's Richard Harris.

HARRIS: Nice to talk to you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Yes, on today's Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.