Edinburgh-born scientist wins Nobel Prize for chemistry

The winners of the 2016 Nobel Chemistry Prize (L-R) Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L Feringa are displayed on a screen during a press conference to announce the winners. Picture: Getty
The winners of the 2016 Nobel Chemistry Prize (L-R) Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L Feringa are displayed on a screen during a press conference to announce the winners. Picture: Getty
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A Scottish scientist has won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for helping to pioneer molecular machines.

Sir James Fraser Stoddard, 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 James obtained a PhD from the University of Edinburgh and worked in Sheffield and Birmingham before moving to the University of California at 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 of the nanotech devices 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 movie Fantastic Voyage.

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

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.

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.”

Professor Sara Snogerup Linse, from the University of Lund, who chairs the Nobel chemistry committee, said molecular machines are an “exploding field” around the world.

“This is the start of a new molecular era,” she said. “We think this is a very right time to award this Nobel Prize because this is when it takes off towards the applications.

“We can only guess, but smart materials for sure will come; materials that can change shape or function or properties when you, for example, shine a light on them.”

She did not think there was anything to fear from the rise of molecular machines.

“I think they’re mainly a big promise,” said Prof Linse. “They don’t have this property of self-replication so they can’t take over. They are all controlled by an energy input, so if you don’t want them to do something you can just stop the energy input and they will stop working.”

Yesterday, Scottish-born scientists David Thouless and Michael Kosterlitz were awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in physics, for work that “revealed the secrets of exotic matter”.

READ MORE: Scotland’s 10 Nobel prize winners.