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The Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year was awarded to three scientists who have pioneered the invention of the nano-machine. That’s right, they are real. Scientists Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Bernard L. Feringa have developed an artificial molecular machine a thousand times smaller than a strand of hair. These tiny machines could be used in the future in fields like medicine, just like you’ve seen in countless sci-fi movies.

Nano-machines: From Sci-Fi to Real-Life

A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. Scientists have long been obsessed with making things nano-scale. However, only recently did scientists actually succeed in making moving nano-machines that could stand on a strand of human hair.

The Nobel Prize winners are the pioneers of constructing these nano-machines. These miniature machines are built by stripping all parts down to molecular level. Scientists were already aware that synthesizing molecules shapes like a ring, and then interlocking these rings together, was the way to build a nano-machine.

Researchers had the first ring. But no one knew how to make the second ring that would lock with the first one. In 1983, Dr. Sauvage came up with a solution. He invented the catenane, copper iron rings held together mechanically, not with chemical bonds. The copper would link the interlocking rings like a pin before being removed.

In 1991, Dr. Stoddart was the one who went on to form more complex nano-machines. He came up with the rotaxane, a ring molecule that can slide back and forth like an abacus bead. Dr. Stoddart used rotaxanes to build a microchip, which can be described as a “molecular abacus.”

During their research, Dr. Stoddart and Dr. Sauvage discovered other fascinating properties associated with nano-machines. For example, rotaxanes were made up of layers of gold, which acted like “artificial muscle.” Partly inspired by Celtic art, the researchers went on to create nano-molecules that “twisted in complicated knots.”

Inspired by all this research, Dr. Feringa developed the world’s first molecular motor in 1999. It was powered by light and managed to spin in one direction without stopping. More than a decade later, Dr. Feringa’s research group sped up this motor’s spin up to 12 million times per second.

Five years ago, the three pioneers built a “molecular car,” which had the nano-motors connected by a nano-chassis to act like wheels. With this, the nanotech field officially reached a workable stage.

Building Machines from the Bottom Up

The approach scientists used to take to build smaller machines was to scale down larger models. There’s a better way to build miniscule machines: build it from the bottom up. That’s what nanotech hopes to achieve.

The award-winning pioneers of nano-machines have used the technology they have discovered to create various molecular machines, such as a lift and even artificial muscle.

The discoveries of these three scientists have revolutionized a field. Dr. Feringa put it this way: When the Wright brothers invented the first viable flying machine some 100 years ago, people didn’t care that a machine could fly. Fast forward to now, and there are air buses and Boeings.

Medicine is the field that would likely benefit from nano-machines the most. Scientists are highly hopeful that nano-machines could be used to deliver drugs more effectively inside the body. These little micro-robots might be able to inject blood in the future, or hunt down cancer cells inside the body. You know, just like the “micromachines” in Ghost in the Shell.

The nano-machines we have now are quite primitive, especially compared to the naturally occurring molecular machines inside the body. Once scientists figure out how to make nano-machines autonomous, then that would be a whole new ball game.

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