Dutch chemist Bernard Feringa has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, together with Jean-Pierre Sauvage from France and James Fraser Stoddart from Scotland. The three scientists have succeeded in designing and constructing molecular machines.

They have developed molecules whose movements can be controlled and which can perform tasks if energy is added to them. For instance, they were able to build a miniature lift, artificial muscles and tiny motors using the molecules. This new option for constructing such small machines has given chemistry a new dimension and could well spark off a scientific revolution, the Nobel Prize Committee said today.

Molecular cars

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The nano-car designed by Feringa. Image: Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Image credit: Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Jean-Pierre Sauvage took the first step towards molecular machines by linking two molecule rings together like a paper chain. It’s important that components of molecular machines can move about freely, and Sauvage’s rings could do just that. Fraser Stoddart then went one step further by creating a free-moving ring structure on an axle.

Bernard Feringa, who is a professor at Groningen University, constructed the world’s very first molecular engine in 1999: a rotary motor that constantly revolved in the same direction. And he even designed a nano-car and a tiny light-driven motor. According to the Nobel Prize Committee, the molecular motor is just as big a discovery as the electric motor invented almost 200 years ago.

Feringa is the fourth Dutchman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry

The very first Nobel Prize in Chemistry (in 1901) was also awarded to a Dutchman: Jacobus Henricus van ’t Hof received this prize for his research into chemical balance and osmosis.

Following this, the prize was also awarded to two other Dutchmen before Bernard Feringa. The first one was Peter Debye (in 1936) for his research into gases, electrons and X-radiation. However, this scientist caused a lot of controversy some 70 years later due to his alleged collaboration with the Nazis. And the last Dutchman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry before Professor Feringa was Paul Crutzen (in 1995), who carried out research into the ozone hole together with other scientists.