Nobel Prize in the field of nanotechnology

The announcement of the Nobel Prize winners for the year 2020, in the fields of chemistry, physics, medicine and physiology, literature, peace and prize for economics, is around the corner and this got me wondering if there was a Nobel Prize awarded to scientists for their contributions in the field of Nanotechnology in the recent years. Indeed, there have been several notable contributions by scientists from different walks of science that helped in the advancement of nanotechnology. The most recent being the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines” awarded to three pioneer scientists Prof. Jean Pierre Sauvage, Prof. Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, and Prof. Bernard Lucas Feringa which marked yet another important milestone in the history of nanotechnology.[7]

Figure1. Nano-car: Four wheel drive molecular car. [2]  

When we take a brief look at the history of nanotechnology, it dates back to the 4th century coloured glass and ceramic pottery painting. The term “nanotechnology” is fairly recent and was coined by Norio Taniguchi in 1974 to describe the semiconductor processes that can be controlled at the nanometer level. Nanotechnology encompasses a vast range of things that are of the nanoscale; from subatomic particles to supramolecular machines; from particulate nanogold colloids to the molecular milieu of the cells; from synthetic catenanes and rotaxanes to the naturally available protein, DNA, RNA and lipids micelle. The term nanotechnology caught enormous amount of public attention in 1986 when it was popularized through the book written by Eric K Drexler “Engines of creation: the coming era of Nanotechnology”. But the interest to explore and understand the materials and life at molecular level has been there since times immemorial. Nobel laureate, theoretical physicist Richard Feynman in his 1959 lecture, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” talked about miniaturizing  the old-age computers and concising vast amounts of information into small cards which in today’s world are our regular personal computers and USB sticks. He was one of the influential scientists who conceptualized the idea of studying and altering the nanoscale structures.

The 1900s witnessed major scientific advancements in the field of nanotechnology with the invention of transmission electron microscope (TEM) by Prof. Ernst Ruska and Max Knoll. In 1986 Prof. Ernst Ruska was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of first electron microscope. The same year Dr. Gerd Binning and Dr. Heinrich Rohrer shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Prof. Ernst Ruska for their invention of scanning tunnelling microscope (STM).[1] As the scientists started building more devices to facilitate the magnification and visualization of the particles that are only a few nanometres, new breakthroughs in biology too paralleled; such as the discovery of DNA by the Nobel laureates James Watson and Francis Crick.

Now coming back to the most recent Nobel Prize winning work on molecular machines, it has opened up vast applications from material science to nanomedicine. The journey of the molecular machines started in 1983 with the synthesis of catenanes and Rotaxanes. Prof. Jean Pierre Sauvage’s work on catenanes (the entwined double or triple ring structures) and Prof. Sir. J.Fraser Stoddart’s work on rotaxanes (the dumbbell shaped molecule interlocked with a ring shaped macromolecule) paved the way to the design and development of molecular switches and molecular motors.[4,5] This work was taken further by Prof. Bernard Feringa to synthesize the dynamic molecular systems that could be activated through light to perform a motor function. Prof. Bernard Feringa and his team designed the nano-car, a synthetically assembled molecule that has a body and four wheels (the molecular structures resembling wheels of an actual car, figure 1). Upon electrical excitation from the scanning tunnelling microscope tip the nano-car moved a few nanometers in a straight line. The molecular modelling indicated “walking-type” motion that resembled the movement of kinesin protein motors on actin filaments. In future this could be exploited for cargo transport by nano-car at the molecular level.[1,3,6]

Figure 2. Smart Photopharmaceuticals[2]

The biomedical/pharmacological application proposed by Prof. Feringa, the photo-stimulated liposomes, could be used to deliver drugs to the target locations and release the drug load upon activation by non-invasive light signals only for a brief period. It is suggested that such an approach would minimise the toxicological effects and improve the targeted treatment of tumours or localized injury of tissues, called the precision therapy.  Another application suggested was to address the antibiotic resistance in bacteria. It is suggested that the antibiotics can be chemically designed in such a way that they can be switched on or off into active or inactive forms. By doing so the possibility of the bacteria developing any resistance could be reduced.[1,6] Prof. Freniga opined that these ideas need further experimentation and validation.

If it weren’t for the imagination and experimental design of synthesizing the catenanes and rotaxanes it would not have been possible to develop the molecular switches, molecular motors and machines. It is for us the younger generation of scientists to draw the inspiration and develop such safe smart drugs that can help alleviate the medical conditions. And for all we know, it takes one great idea for the progress of entire humanity in a more ecologically sustainable way.


  1. Bayda, S.; Adeel, M.; Tuccinardi, T.; Cordani, M.; Rizzolio, F. The History of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology: From Chemical–Physical Applications to Nanomedicine. Molecules 2020, 25, 112.
  2. B. L. Feringa, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2017, 56, 11060.
  3. Kudernac, T., Ruangsupapichat, N., Parschau, M. et al. Electrically driven directional motion of a four-wheeled molecule on a metal surface. Nature 479, 208–211 (2011).
  4. Nobel lecture by Prof Jean Pierre Sauvage
  5. Nobel lecture by Prof Sir J. Fraser Stoddart
  6. Nobel lecture by Prof. Bernard L Feringa
  7. Richards, V. Molecular machines. Nature Chem 8, 1090 (2016). 

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