Molecular machines as revolutionary as planes

Nobel Stoddart, useful for new materials, batteries and even in medicine

A technological revolution equal to that brought about by the invention of the plane: this is what is being prepared thanks to molecular machines, the smallest machines in the world produced in the laboratory imitating those present in nature, even in the cells of the human body. Made by gears, switches, pumps and rotors a few millionths of a millimeter in size, they can move, transport drugs or be controlled remotely, and thanks to their properties can make a radical change in medicine and in the development of new materials, also useful to produce the batteries of the future. Word of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry James Fraser Stoddart, guest at the Politecnico di Milano for a lectio magistralis followed by more than 300 students and teachers.

“In our body there are many molecular machines that allow us to live: to move the arm, for example, I’m using a molecular machine made from a protein that walks on top of the other”, explains Stoddart, who arrived in Italy to participate in the international congress of chemistry Ismsc 2019 that the Politecnico di Milano organizes in Lecce from 2 to 6 June. “What I did with the other two Nobel Prize winners, Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Bernard L. Feringa, was nothing more than designing and synthesizing artificial molecular machines. Although invisible to the naked eye, these machines “are beginning to be a reality: there are already the first applications, but it will take years, perhaps decades, to exploit their full potential,” explains the British chemist who works in the United States at Northwestern University. “It’s going to be a new technological revolution, as with planes,” explains Nobel Prize winner Stoddart.

“We’ve always seen birds and insects fly, but it’s only in the last century that we humans have managed to do that, turning flying into a practice that has since become commercial and accessible to a growing number of people. With molecular machines, it will be the same. The revolution will, first of all, bring new materials. “On the market there are already scratch-resistant polymers based on simple molecular machines, which are used for example in Japan for the covers of smartphones, but in the future we can also have more efficient batteries: there is already a study in the literature that shows the best performance and durability of lithium-ion batteries that contain a special polymer. Even more impressive are the possible applications in medicine, “because we will have molecular machines capable of interacting with human cells, so – concludes Stoddart – we can imagine new and more efficient systems to convey drugs.