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Northwestern prof shares Nobel Prize for world’s tiniest machines

Fraser Stoddart raises a glass of champagne at a news conference at Northwestern University in Evanston on Wednesday after being awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. | AP

A Northwestern University chemistry professor was among three scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for developing the world’s smallest machines — 1,000 times thinner than a human hair but with the potential to revolutionize computer technology and lead to a new type of battery.

Northwestern’s Scotland-born Fraser Stoddart, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Dutch scientist Bernard “Ben” Feringa share the Nobel honor and the cash prize that goes with it — 8 million kronor, the equivalent of $930,000 — for the “design and synthesis of molecular machines,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

Speaking at his office in Evanston, Stoddart said many in his field are waiting “for the killer application” of their discoveries. But Stoddart said he thinks the Nobel committee’s recognition of “blue-sky fundamental science,” with no big application expected anytime soon, should be “applauded and should be listened to.”

Machines at the molecular level have taken chemistry to a new dimension and “will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems,” the academy said.

But, although the potential is enormous, practical applications are still far away. The academy said molecular motors are at the same stage that electrical motors were in the first half of the 19th century.

Stoddart, 74, already has developed a molecule-based computer chip with 20 kB memory. Researchers believe chips so small might revolutionize computer technology the way silicon-based transistors once did.

Feringa, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, leads a research group that in 2011 built a “nanocar” — a minuscule vehicle with four molecular motors as wheels.

Sauvage is professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg and director of research emeritus at France’s National Center for Scientific Research.

The academy said the laureates’ work has inspired other researchers to build increasingly advanced molecular machinery — including a robot that can grasp and connect amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.

Researchers are also hoping to develop a new kind of battery using this technology.

“I feel a little bit like the Wright brothers, who were flying 100 years ago for the first time, and then people were saying, ‘Why do we need a flying machine?’ ” Feringa, 65, said in Stockholm. “And now we have a Boeing 747 and an Airbus. So that is a bit how I feel.”

In this Oct. 2014 photo, provided by the University of Strasbourg (Unistra) Nobel laureate Jean-Pierre Sauvage speaks during an interview in Strasbourg, eastern France. Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sauvage, British-born Fraser Stoddart and Dutch scientist Bernard "Ben" Feringa share the 8 million kronor ($930,000) prize for the "design and synthesis of molecular machines," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said. Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016 for developing the world's smallest machines, work that could revolutionize computer technology and lead to a new type of battery. (Catherine Schroder/Unistra via AP)

Jean-Pierre Sauvage. | Unistra via AP

Sauvage, 71, called the news a memorable moment and a big surprise.

“I have won many prizes, but the Nobel Prize is something very special,” he said. “It’s the most prestigious prize, the one most scientists don’t even dare to dream of in their wildest dreams.”

The academy said Sauvage made the first breakthrough in 1983, when he linked two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain. Stoddart took the next step in 1991 by threading a molecular ring onto a molecular axle. And Feringa was the first to develop a molecular motor in 1999, when he got a molecular rotor blade to spin continuously in the same direction.

The academy said the “miniaturization of machines” is just in its initial phase, with potentially “thrilling” developments ahead.

“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 academy said.

Bernard "Ben" Feringa at a news conference at the University of Groningenin the Netherlands. | AP

Bernard “Ben” Feringa at a news conference at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. | AP

Feringa said he could think of all kinds of potential applications, including smart materials that adapt to external conditions or “tiny robots that the doctors in the future will inject in your blood veins and then go to search for a cancer cell or … deliver a drug.”

The award “will generate a lot of interest in this field,” said Donna Nelson, president of the American Chemical Society.

The Nobel Prizes will be handed out at ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on Dec. 10 — the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896. Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, wanted his awards to honor achievements that delivered the “greatest benefit to mankind.”

Stoddart also used his news conference about the prize to speak out about Brexit — Britain’s impending departure from the 28-nation European Union. He said Britain is “in a real mess because it thinks it can raise borders to people coming into it” and that that’s not good for science because it will eliminate millions of people and their talents.

British officials have promised to provide more financial support to scientists since they are expected to lose millions in European Union funding.