Together, the chemists designed some of the first controllable, nanometre-sized structures that could convert chemical energy into mechanical forces and motion. This allowed them to construct a host of molecular devices, including switches, motors, shuttles and even something resembling a molecular motorcar, the Guardian reported.
The winning paper was entitled “For the design and synthesis of molecular machines”.
Molecular machines are tiny molecules, a thousand times thinner than a strand of hair, with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added.
The molecular machines “will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems,” the Daily Mail quoted the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences as saying.
These machines will most likely be used in the development of things like new materials, sensors and energy storage systems.
Another application of these machines could be delivering drugs within the human body, for example, by applying them directly to cancer cells.
The first step towards building a molecular machine was taken by Jean-Pierre Sauvage in 1983, when he linked two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain.
The second step toward building the molecular machine was taken by Fraser Stoddart in 1991, when he developed a molecule called rotaxane.
Professor Feringa was the first person to develop a molecular motor, in 1999.
“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,” the jury said when announcing the winners.
When Jean-Pierre Sauvage first linked two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain, it was a breakthrough. 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.
In 1991, Stoddart threaded a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle and showed the ring was able to move along the axle.
He developed a variety of machines based on this molecule, called rotaxane, including a molecular lift, a molecular muscle and a molecule-based computer chip.
In 1999, Bernard Feringa developed a molecular rotor blade that could spin continually in the same direction.
Using molecular motors, he has rotated a glass cylinder 10,000 times bigger than the motor and also designed a nanocar.
Given that it was so small, the only real ways the nanocar had any visual similarities to a car was that it had four wheels and a bare-bones internal framework.
The car was powered by electrical pulses that respond to millivolts of energy. For every half-turn of its wheels, the car needed another jolt of energy.
Even though the actual size of the project might be smaller than the average human eye, it was a massive breakthrough for scientists in the field of nanotechnology.