Northwestern has yet another awe-inspiring fact to add to its admissions materials.
Sir Fraser Stoddart, Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for research that led to the creation of tiny molecular machines. He’s the first professor to win a Nobel Prize while teaching at Northwestern since Dale T. Mortensen, Board of Trustees Professor of Economics until his death in 2014, who earned the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2010. He’s also the second University professor to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry, joining John A. Pople, who won the Prize in 1998.
Stoddart shares the award with Jean-Pierre Sauvage of the University of Strasbourg in France and Bernard L. Feringa of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, both of whom also broke ground in the field of molecular machinery.
Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel, famous for inventing dynamite, established the Prize in his will when he died in 1896, and the first Prizes were awarded in 1901. Nobel chose five categories – physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace – and the central bank of Sweden added the memorial prize in economics in 1968. In Nobel’s will, he said the Prizes should go to people who “shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”
The molecular machines Stoddart helped to create may be small – over 1,000 times thinner than a hair strand small – but their benefits to mankind could be huge. While molecular machines still need further development, the Royal Swedish Academy of the Sciences said in a statement that the machines could eventually be used to create new materials and ways of storing energy.
Stoddart’s work in particular focused on creating a rotaxane. In 1991, he placed a molecular ring on a molecular axle and could move the ring along the axle. The open ring lacked electrons – negatively charged atoms – while the axle had an abundance, which caused it to be attracted to the axle. Stoddart’s team then closed the ring, creating the rotaxane. When he heated the ring, it would move back and forth between the two end of the axle, where the electrons were.
This technology alone led to molecule-based lifts, muscles and computer chips, among other discoveries. It also laid the foundation for Feringa, who created a molecular motor in 1999.
In addition to earning the Prize, Stoddart and his colleagues will also split an award of 8 million Swedish krona, or a little over $930,000. Not to mention, their contributions to molecular machinery are already being compared to the creation of the electric motor.