The turn of the 20th century saw an industrial revolution that saw the rise of machines to handle tasks previously beyond our grasp. Mechanization and automation in our civilization have created a higher quality of life than our physical bodies could ever achieve. Scientists are continually pushing the upper limits of engineering to create gigantic machines–from the International Space Station, orbiting the planet with a size greater than a football field, to massive oil rigs that drill the depths of our oceans. Recently, however, the Chemistry Nobel Committee recognized a group of scientists for their pioneering work to extend the lower bounds of machines.
Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir James Fraser Stoddart, and Ben L. Feringa have split the 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines” . We are comfortable with the classic picture of machines that consist of gears and belts all moving in coordination with each other to complete a desired task. Sauvage, Stoddart, and Feringa have scaled the functions of these traditional mechanisms down to individual molecules. The group has replicated many of the machines we are familiar with out of molecules that are 100 times thinner than a human hair . Examples like Stoddart’s “molecular elevator” or Feringa’s “nanocar” show great promise for future development, leading the Nobel Committee to comment:
“…However, just as the world stood perplexed before the early machines, such as the first electric motors and steam engines, there is the potential for a similar explosive development of molecular machines. In a sense, we are at the dawn of a new industrial revolution of the twenty-first century, and the future will show how molecular machinery can become an integral part of our lives…”
Prof. Amar Flood from the Indiana University Chemistry Department also commented on the award:
“This is well deserved recognition for an outstanding trio of pioneers in molecular machines. Each has made foundational contributions to our understanding of how to move matter around controllably and repeatably at the molecular level. I am extremely happy for each of them and overjoyed at the recognition for the field.”
Prof. Flood previously served as a postdoctoral scholar under Prof. Stoddart, and has drawn upon that experience to design and create new molecular machines that exhibit autonomous motion here at IU. A recent publication from the group in the Journal of Inorganic Chemistry  shows that Prof. Flood’s group has been able to synthesize two juxtaposed molecular switches each capable of an “on” and “off” state. One key feature of the Flood group’s molecular machine is its palindromic properties: just like the word “RACECAR,” the machine is the same both forwards and backwards, and so is the switch. This type of double switch setup has tremendous promise for applications that mimic molecular muscles.
As PhD student in the chemistry department I was excited to see the award go to Sauvage, Stoddart, and Feringa. Molecular machines have a fascinating future, and hopefully with the interest generated by this recognition the work will go from fundamental science to life changing applications in my lifetime.
 (2016). Nobel Media AB 2014. Retrieved October 5, 2016.
 Benson, C. R., Share, A. I., Marzo, M. G., & Flood, A. H. (2016). Double Switching of Two Rings in Palindromic Pseudorotaxanes: Cooperativity and Mechanism of Motion. Inorganic Chemistry, 55(8), 3767-3776. doi:10.1021/acs.inorgchem.5b02554