The art of building small

‘Which questions are we going to ask?
We are looking at the challenges for our students,
the dreams of our people and the opportunities for our industries and society.
When we are going into the adventure of the unknown,
we often get lost,
we look for answers to our impossible questions,
in this beautiful garden,
called the garden of science.
We see question marks, that we never thought about.
We even thought that these questions didn’t exist,
and these usually result in the most fantastic discoveries,
the most beautiful scientific flowers.’

Microcosm, chemist Bernard “Ben” Feringa* Nobel laureate (from the University of Groningen, Netherlands) explains The Art of Building Small **

In 1999, Ben Feringa and his team at Groningen University discovered that engines can be produced out of molecules, constructing the first light-driven micro-car. Molecular chains, functioning as “wheels”, carry the body of the “car” away from chemical compounds. These molecular motors can be employed in the human body to build up muscular elements or micro machines, as well as to transport medicines. The Dutch researcher won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2016 for this discovery, together with Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Fraser Stoddart.

‘I grew up on a farm. It was a fantastic playground for adventures where my parents encouraged me to ask questions and explore nature. Later on, when I went to the University of Groningen to study chemistry, one of my professors set me the impossible challenge: to build a molecular engine. After 3 years I managed to create the molecule which was received with a great amount of enthusiasm. I felt fantastic! The molecule was absolutely useless, but I thought it was the most beautiful molecule in the world’

The research program of Feringa is currently focussed on synthetic organic chemistry. Inspired by nature’s principles of molecular assembly, transport and motion, the goal is to exploit the full potential of synthetic chemistry to create new structures and functions. A major part of the research is directed towards nanotechnology and novel functional materials, such as molecular switches and motors. Biological molecular motors translate their local directional motion into ordered movement of other parts of the system to empower controlled mechanical functions. The design of analogous geared systems that couple motion in a directional manner, remains highly challenging. Photopharmacology involves activating drugs with light switches inside of the body.  Feringa’s group recently reported a molecular rotary motor that translates light-driven unidirectional rotary motion to controlled movement of a connected biaryl rotor. They also succeeded at making the first antibiotic that could harmlessly be switched on and off with infrared light. ‘At the moment, our biggest challenge is to get said light into a body,  but we are planning to extend our research to facilitate the application of these switches.’ Aside from molecular motors and switches, Feringa’s work has crossed many disciplines and includes the use of chiral electromagnetic radiation to generate enantioselectivity, low molecular weight gelators, imaging porphyrins with STM, drying induced self-assembly, organic synthesis and exploring the origins of chirality including the possibility of an extraterrestrial source. In the future, Feringa’s group would like to create machines that can amplify the molecular machines’ motion to create larger movements or transmit motion over longer distances.

‘I think we should encourage our children to study Chemistry, because they are shaping the future of society. Chemistry is the art of building small. We build molecules in the lab to test new theories and produce new research, but sometimes we like molecules because they’re beautiful. I like this molecule simply because it is beautifully shaped’

‘Don’t live in the equilibrium, because if your are in the equilibrium you are dead. Boost out of the equilibrium, that is how we move. Enjoy the beauty of science!’




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