The 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been jointly awarded to Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, honorary graduate of the University of St Andrews, alongside Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Bernard L. Feringa for their work on the development of molecular machines. These machines, sometimes called nanomachines, are said to represent a brand new frontier for technology that could open up a wide variety of opportunities in both research and industry.
Professor Stoddart was awarded his share of the prize partly in recognition of the development of a rotaxane in 1991 by his research group. The object they had developed was a tiny, molecular-sized ring that they found could be locked into place on a rod. This had never been done on such a small scale, and only a few years later they found they could move the ring in a predictable way just by heating it. This ring could move side to side just like a lift moves up and down and was one of the first steps towards a true molecular machine.
Professor Stoddard’s decades of hard work have been recognised with numerous awards and honours, in addition to the recent Nobel Prize. In 2010 Professor Stoddart was awarded an honorary DSc by the University of St Andrews for his significant work in the field of chemistry. His current position is as a Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and he has been honoured with named lectureships at institutions all over the world. In total Professor Stoddart has published over 1,000 academic pieces of work, of which multiple have been cited over 1,000 times, and he has overseen the doctoral studies of dozens of researchers who have now become very successful.
Professor Stoddart’s developments have led to innovative new designs that use miniscule machines. Using the rotaxane device, Professor Stoddart worked alongside other researchers to create, amongst other things, a nanoscale storage device capable of holding 20kB worth of information, about as much as a small digital photo. It is believed that if this molecular technology is developed more then it could be the replacement to our current silicon-based computer chips, allowing us to store more data in a much smaller space.
So why do we not have molecular machines in all of our technology? The answer is simple. This is a field that is still in its infancy and is being developed by some of the brightest minds in the world. The technology is relatively new and requires more time to be fully investigated, research which the Nobel Prize publicity will help to boost. As it stands, the job of getting millions of tiny motors to work together is not easy. However, these machines have been used in remarkable ways, for example in Professor Feringa’s work on molecular motors, which can spin up to 12 million times per second and drive microscopic cars.
Professor Stoddart’s work, alongside the work of Professor Sauvage and Professor Feringa, has helped to shape this specific subfield of chemistry by showing that design and manufacture of molecular sized machines is possible in today’s world. All three of their research groups continue to work hard towards the development of these nanoscale devices to this day, boosted by their new Nobel Prize honours.