“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,” it said.
The three scientists — Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa — will equally share the prize of 8 million Swedish kronor, or about $930,000.
Why Did They Win?
Nanotechnology — the creation of structures on the scale of a nanometer, or a billionth of a meter — has been a field of fruitful research for a couple of decades. In this next wave of research, scientists are learning how to construct tiny moving machines, about one-thousandth the width of a strand of human hair.
“It’s taking a step farther,” said Donna J. Nelson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma and president of the American Chemical Society. “I think it’s going to go a lot farther. They’ve got it started. I think this is just the beginning.”
Dr. Sauvage took a big step toward their development in 1983, when he succeeded in linking two ring-shaped molecules to form a chain, called a catenane.
The second step was taken by Dr. Stoddart in 1991, when he threaded a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle and demonstrated that the ring was able to move along the axle.
Dr. Feringa, in 1999, became the first person to develop a molecular motor; he got a molecular rotor blade to spin continually in the same direction.
The three men invigorated the field of topological chemistry, the academy said. They were pioneers in the second wave of nanotechnology, a field that the physicist Richard P. Feynman, also a Nobel laureate, foresaw as early as 1959. He gave a seminal lecture in 1984, toward the end of his life, on design and engineering at the molecular scale.
Why is the work important?
In living organisms, nature has produced a slew of molecular machines that ferry materials around in a cell, construct proteins and divide cells. The artificial molecular machines are still primitive by comparison, but scientists can already envision applications in the future.
“Think about nanomachines, microrobots,” said Dr. Feringa, who spoke by telephone with journalists assembled in Stockholm at the prize announcement. “Think about tiny robots that the doctor in the future will inject in your blood veins, and they go search for cancer cells or going to deliver drugs, for instance.”
The technology could also lead to the creation of “smart materials” that could change properties based on external signals, Dr. Feringa said.
Who Are the Winners?
Dr. Sauvage, 71, was born in Paris and received his Ph.D. in 1971 from the University of Strasbourg in France, where he is a professor emeritus. He is also director of research emeritus at the National Center for Scientific Research in France.
Dr. Stoddart, 74, was born in Edinburgh, received his Ph.D. in 1966 from Edinburgh University, and is a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He previously taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to science.
Dr. Feringa, 64, was born in Barger-Compascuum, the Netherlands, and received his Ph.D. in 1978 from the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, where he is a professor of organic chemistry.
Statements From the Winners
Dr. Feringa said he was “a bit shocked” when he got the phone call telling him he had been honored.
“I feel a little bit like the Wright Brothers, who were flying 100 years ago for the first time,” he said. “People were saying, ‘Why do we need a flying machine?’ And now we have a Boeing 747 and an Airbus.”
The molecular discovery “opens up a whole new world of nanomachines,” he said, while acknowledging that “we have to think about how we can handle these things safely.”
Who Else Has Won a Nobel This Year?
■ Yoshinori Ohsumi, a Japanese cell biologist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday for his discoveries on how cells recycle their content, a process known as autophagy, a Greek term for “self-eating.”
■ David J. Thouless, F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitzshared the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for their research into the bizarre properties of matter in extreme states.
Who Won the 2015 Chemistry Nobel?
Tomas Lindahl, Paul L. Modrich and Aziz Sancar were awarded the prize last year for having discovered how cells repair their DNA and protect it from the sun’s ultraviolet light as well natural toxins and industrial pollutants.
When Will Other Prizes Be Announced?
Three more will be awarded in the coming days:
■ The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday in Norway. Read about last year’s winner, the National Dialogue Quartet of Tunisia.
■ The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science will be announced on Monday, Oct. 10, in Sweden. Read about last year’s winner, Angus Deaton.
■ The Nobel Prize in Literature will be announced on Thursday, Oct. 13, in Sweden. Read about last year’s winner, Svetlana Alexievich.