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Scottish-born knight shares Nobel Prize in Chemistry for molecular machines work

Published 05/10/2016

The Royal Academy of Sciences members reveal the winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in Stockholm (Henrik Montgomery/TT via AP)
The Royal Academy of Sciences members reveal the winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in Stockholm (Henrik Montgomery/TT via AP)

A Scottish-born knight working in the US who pioneered the development of molecular machines is to share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Sir Fraser Stoddart, 74, from Northwestern University in Illinois, was named joint winner of the prestigious award in recognition of his work on tiny motors too small to see with the naked eye.

The other two laureates announced at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm were Professor Jean-Pierre Sauvage, from the University of Strasbourg, France, and Professor Bernard Feringa, from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.

Each scientist will receive an equal share of the eight million kronor (£733,000) prize money.

The three men played pivotal roles in overcoming the huge challenge of building controllable microscopic machines incorporating atomic-scale rods, rotors and ratchets.

Sir Fraser, who was born in Edinburgh and obtained his PhD from the city's university, said he was "overawed and in a state of shock" at winning the Nobel Prize.

Speaking by telephone to a journalist from the Nobel Foundation, he said his two daughters were "thrilled to bits".

Sir Fraser praised his fellow laureates, saying they were two scientists he held in "very high regard".

He said: "We have worked very closely together.

"There's so much to be had from bringing people together from different cultural backgrounds, and the amazing thing is that when you put them in a research laboratory they work like sisters and brothers.

"Diversity really does enrich the process of discovery and invention."

He revealed that he made an early decision to avoid what many people think of as the traditional side of chemistry.

"I was never in any way drawn to chemistry by bangs and smells," he said.

Sir Fraser worked in Edinburgh, Sheffield and Birmingham before m oving to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1997.

He was included in the Queen's New Year's honours list in 2006 and made a knight bachelor.

The award, announced by Professor Goran Hansson, secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, was "for the design and synthesis of molecular machines".

Each of the molecular devices created by the scientists is more than 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Yet, magnified up, they operate much like large-scale machinery with rings spinning round axles, components moving to-and-fro along tracks, "elevator" platforms that rise and fall, and artificial contracting "muscles".

Prof Feringa's research group has even demonstrated a four-wheel drive "nanocar" with a molecular chassis and motors that function as wheels.

Future applications still remain largely in the realm of science fiction. But they could include tiny medical devices that circulate through the bloodstream cleaning arteries, delivering drugs or performing microsurgery in an echo of the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage.

Groups of molecular machines operating together may also provide the basis for self-assembling structures or synthetic proteins.

In 2013 a team at the University of Manchester led by one of Sir Fraser's former students, Professor David Leigh, created a molecular "robot" that can grasp and connect protein building blocks.

The research was inspired by the ribosome, a biological machine in cells that translates the genetic code to make proteins.

Speaking at the awards press conference, Nobel committee member Professor Olof Ramstrom, a nanotechnology expert from the Royal Institute of Chemistry in Stockholm, said: "This is basic fundamental science ... You can say that the development stage here is similar to what it was at the beginning of the 19th century when many scientists demonstrated different electrical machines.

"Of course, these electrical machines from the beginning of the 19th century, they created a revolution. Nowadays we have electrical machines everywhere."

Prof Sauvage paved the way to future research on nanodevices in 1983 when he created linked chains of ring-shaped molecules that could move freely without coming apart.

Working at the University of Birmingham, Sir Fraser achieved a breakthrough in 1991 by designing an axle-like molecule circled by a revolving ring that shuttled between two points.

After moving to the US, he went on to design a tiny "elevator" that could raise itself 0.7 nanometres above a surface, and a molecular "muscle".

In 1999, Prof Feringa produced the first genuine molecular rotary motor that spun in one direction.

Two years ago the Dutch group built a nanomotor that could spin at the astonishing speed of 12 million revolutions per second.

Professor Jon Preece, head of the University of Birmingham's School of Chemistry, which Sir Fraser ran during the 1990s, said: "We are delighted that Sir Fraser's work has been rewarded by the highest scientific honour of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and is much deserved by him for his dedication to science."

Professor Eleanor Campbell, from the University of Edinburgh's School of Chemistry, said: "We are very proud of the achievements of Sir Fraser, a local boy brought up on Edgelaw farm near Gorebridge, Midlothian.

"Fraser regularly visits the School of Chemistry and has a close connection to his alma mater, always willing to provide advice and support."

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