Very big in the very small
You can call Ben Feringa in the middle of the night to inform him of the discovery of ‘a beautiful molecule’
And regret was the furthest thing from the mind of the shining centre of attention at the Martini Church: Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa. And any fear or nervousness about the official award ceremony for the Nobel Prize in just over a week from now are also nowhere to be found, he says.
And how could it? He has been through a lot since his name was announced by the Nobel Committee two months ago, Feringa said on stage. ‘How could I be nervous?’ Nevertheless, he still looked around the red-lit Martini Church in awe as the audience’s applause went on for quite a while. The look on his face said: ‘Is all this for me?’
A beautiful molecule
He became even more emotional when his research group (‘a fantastic team of talented students and researchers’) were called on stage by mayor Peter den Oudsten and received the municipality of Groningen Badge of Honour.
Immediately before, Feringa, accompanied by Rector Magnificus Elmer Sterken, walked from the Academy Building to the Martini Church trailed by over 200 RUG professors. Never before, not even at the opening of the academic year or the celebration of the university’s 400th birthday, was the cortege so large.
Once again, Feringa explained what made him world famous: the nano-motor, and how you can wake him any day for a ‘beautiful molecule’. A beautiful molecule? ‘Yes, a molecule can be really beautiful. In its shape, its symmetry, its asymmetry, in its colours.’
It’s not every day that you see such a procession – time for a selfie.
The processional passes the Grote Markt en route to the Martini Church.
How does a nano-car work? Feringa patiently explains it once more.
Feringa is named Honorary Citizen while his research team receives the Badge of Honour from the municipality of Groningen.
Roughly 200 professors from the RUG gathered in the Martini Church.
A friendly chat beneath the vaulted ceiling of the Martini Church.
Drinks, snacks, congratulations and above all else a lot of hands to shake.
Feringa’s Fantastic Voyage
Ben Feringa is like a young boy with a big box of Lego; except instead of plastic bricks, he is building with molecules. ‘I’m a molecule builder. I try to create smart molecules. It gives you such a rush: building your own molecule, your own world.’
It might sound improbable to an outsider, but to Feringa and his team, this ‘isn’t all that difficult’. The challenge primarily lies herein: ‘Being able to operate it and controlling what happens.’
In 1999, Feringa presented the first molecular motor, the nanomotor, and followed up with a molecular four-wheel drive car and a nano wind farm. The research into this motor, a molecule of which a part could fully rotate under the influence of light and heat, is globally considered ground-breaking.
One possible application of the nanomotor is a miniature submersible that travels through the blood vessels of the human body to deliver medication very accurately; this was already featured in the 1966 science fiction film Fantastic Voyage by director Richard Fleischer.
Even in 2016, we are still far from achieving this goal, Feringa admits. He expects that it could take another 50 years before actual application is possible. Nevertheless, he remains hopeful. After all, the foundations for the iPhone – a world without which is difficult to imagine – were laid 50 years ago as well.
The illustrations below depict Feringa’s research in both text and images.
When it was first invented, it rotated very slowly, but nowadays, it moves very quickly.
Feringa builds molecules. You can always wake him up in the middle of the night to report the discovery of a ‘beautiful molecule’.
It is not actually all that difficult to build a molecule, according to Feringa. The trick is steering it.
And Feringa discovered that that can be done. That is how his nano-car, a microscopic vehicle that goes left if it needs to or right if it needs to, was invented.