TT News Agency / Reuters

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded Wednesday to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart, and Bernard Feringa for their work on the design and synthesis of molecular machines, or what the Nobel committee called the “world’s tiniest machines.”

In 1983, Sauvage, now professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg, France, linked two ring-shaped molecules together—via a mechanical bond instead of the more commonly seen covalent bond—to form a chain, called a catenane. Because the two molecules could move relative to each other, they fulfilled a basic requirement that machines rely on to perform tasks. This is what it looks like:

Then in 1991, Stoddart, now a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, threaded a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle and demonstrated that the ring was able to move along the axle—creating what is known as a rotaxane. The molecular muscle and the molecule-based computer chip are both based on rotaxanes.

Feringa, a professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, developed a molecular motor, and, in 1999, he he got a molecular rotor blade to spin continually in the same direction. He has used his work to rotate a glass cylinder 10,000 times bigger than the motor, and has also designed a nanocar.

Here’s more from the statement:

2016's Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have taken molecular systems out of equilibrium's stalemate and into energy-filled states in which their movements can be controlled. In terms of development, 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. Molecular machines will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems.

The three men will share the 8 million kronor ($932,786) prize.

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