Science

Nobel prize for Feringa

The boy with the box of legos

This week, RUG chemist Ben Feringa gets to add a new prize to his trophy case, and it’s a big one: the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Text by Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Photo by Reyer Boxem

On Wednesday, RUG chemist Ben Feringa was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. He shares the prize with a Frenchman and a Brit.

It is only one of many prestigious prizes for the man who made the first molecular motor in 1999 and the first nanocar in 2011.

Feringa builds molecules that do not occur in nature and have clever and useful properties.

Feringa dreams of nanorobots that repair your body from the inside out, self-cleaning surfaces, or minuscule submarines that deliver medication in the body.

He might well succeed. He has also he managed to use light to make a drop of water move by using a nano wind farm.

He has always declined offers from other countries. He says the research environment in Groningen is perfectly all right. However, the Dutch government should keep an eye on fundamental research.

Reading time: 17 minutes (2,208 words)

Ben Feringa. The chemist from Barger-Compascuum who turned the world of organic chemistry upside down in 1999 by building the first molecular motor. The man who made the first molecular four wheel drive vehicle in 2011. The man that publishes articles in Nature and Science at the drop of a hat and who some people think is up for a Nobel Prize.

A boy with a box of legos

He has laugh lines around his eyes. When he starts talking about his job, his eyes twinkle mischievously. He has many achievements to his name, but for him, the world is still a big box of legos, and he is the little boy who gets to play with them.

He looks at nature, figures out how it works and then starts tinkering with the chemical building blocks in order to make hitherto non-existent molecules with new – and, of course, clever – properties. Even more clever and useful than what Mother Nature managed to produce in all those millions of years of evolution, in fact. ‘When evolution started, nature had all the building blocks and unlimited possibilities’, he says. ‘But once amino acids became the basis for proteins, the course was set. We don’t have those same limitations.’

His fascination started when he made his first molecule as a student. It was just a little insignificant molecule, but the realisation that he had made something that did not exist before sparked a drive in him that has never gone away.

Moreover, he is convinced that his profession, synthetic chemistry, is on the brink of amazing developments. ‘Chemists are working on developing new processes that are cleaner and sustainable – processes that can not only change the world, but that the world needs. Because we are running out of natural resources, we have to do something.’ Ben Feringa wants to be part of the solution.

And it looks like he is going to succeed. Especially since, in 1989, he sort of accidentally discovered the principal of the molecular motor: a single molecule that rotates under the influence of light. ‘At that time, we were working on simulating the switch processes in the human eye’, he says. ‘Your eyes are full of little switches that you turn on and off under the influence of light. We wanted to use that on-and-off process of zeroes and ones to make a kind of molecular memory.’

They finally succeeded, although it turned out there were almost no practical applications. During the experiments, however, Feringa came across a molecule that did not make a quarter turn as expected, but continued turning and made a half turn in the end. ‘And if you can make a molecule do a half turn, why not a whole turn?’ he asked himself. And that is how you make a motor on the most basic of levels.

Revolution

It took him ten whole years to perfect the process. The molecule that finally made him famous made one whole, light-powered turn in an hour. You might think that is not very spectacular, yet it was a revolution. ‘Now, we knew it was possible!’ he says. ‘When the Wright Brothers managed to fly a few metres in a soapbox in 1903, that wasn’t very spectacular either, compared to the Boeings flying around the world today. But they proved it was possible.’

This is what Feringa did as well: he had shown that it was possible to apply the principle of the motor on a scale of one-millionth of a millimetre. ‘And then you can start thinking about nanorobots in your body, self-cleaning surfaces, or minuscule submarines that deliver medication to precisely the right place in your body.’

Since then, developments in synthetic biology have been happening at a fast pace, and Feringa’s group is at the forefront. While the first nanomotor in 1999 only rotated once per hour, Feringa has now made one that can rotate ten million times per second. In 2010, he caused another revolution when he was the first person to introduce a nanocar: a molecule with four cooperating rotating parts. ‘With that, we showed that we could turn a rotating movement into a linear one’, he says. ‘It’s the same movement a car makes.’

In 2014, he followed it up with a nano wind farm where he managed to affix rotating molecules to a solid base – a razor-thin layer of gold. Because the molecules are working together, interaction with the macroworld becomes possible. In other words: a water drop shrank and expanded because of Feringa’s wind farm. This principle can be used to make, for example, smart surfaces. Think, for instance, of a layer that can repair itself under the influence of light. The next step is to make a nanocar move in one direction on a little ‘road’.

Beaten

Sometimes, however, Feringa has to stand by as other people beat him. Last week, for instance, a group of American scientists announced that they had used Feringa’s motor to build a submarine that could move in a liquid – something he had been dreaming of as well. ‘We worked on it for two years, but it simply wasn’t working out. Afterwards. it turned out our measuring techniques were not up to snuff. So eventually, we just stopped.’

He did develop a different kind of submarine: a nanotube that used sugar for fuel and moved like a kind of spider. And yet… he would have loved to have made that American submarine himself, he confesses.

It is part of the job. You need to persevere to get results, and there is no guarantee of success. ‘If you can’t handle frustration, don’t become a researcher.’

A new box

Sometimes, things simply do not work out, and sometimes, you are dependent on dumb luck. For example, Feringa recently succeeded after twenty years of trying to establish carbon-carbon bonds by using organolithium bonds with a new catalyst. ‘Lithium was so reactive. It was doing all kinds of things except what it should, even though we were convinced it was possible’, he says. ‘We finally managed to get it under control when a postdoctoral student used a solvent that we usually never use. Suddenly it worked, and we quickly understood why we couldn’t make it work before.’

It was the start of a boom of new research and possibilities or, to stick to Feringa’s terminology: it opened a whole new box of legos.

Feringa’s latest molecular motor is a nano windmill.

In 30 or 40 years, he thinks it should be possible to inject a nanorobot into your body where it can make repairs. ‘But the question remains, of course: do we want this? Isn’t it dangerous to manipulate the building blocks of nature?’

Feringa himself is confident. ‘Do you know what people said when the Wright Brothers flew those first few metres? ‘If God wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings.’ You don’t hear anyone saying that now.’ Why would it be acceptable to make an artificial hip, yet not a nanopacemaker?

Nevertheless, nanotechnology is in need of a debate, just like genetics. ‘I am aware of the fact that scientists carry a large responsibility, and we pass that message along to our students.’

Perfectly all right

That is why molecules with dangerous properties, such as highly carcinogenic substances, are not allowed in his lab. He refuses research for military purposes or that involve certain regimes. And that is not a hypothetical situation. He has had offers like that.

But he also passed on invitations from less questionable countries and universities. Why? Why not leave Groningen for Harvard or Cambridge, who would no doubt welcome him with open arms?

When it came down it, it was quite simple, says Feringa. One of the most tempting offers came just when his children were in high school and quite happily settled. His wife was working at the UMCG. ‘You don’t just pack up and move in a situation like that.’

Besides, he has nice colleagues and the research environment in Groningen, and the rest of the country, is perfectly all right, according to Feringa.

But the Dutch government must continue to invest in fundamental research. ‘The Netherlands has the potential to be at the forefront, but that takes perseverance and investments. We need to keep an eye on applications, but the basis of academic research is an eye for the long term and training young people so they can do new things ten or twenty years hence.’

This is an updated version of a story about Ben Feringa which the UK originally published in November 2015.

Another prize!

1997 Pino Gold Medal from the Italian Chemical Society
2003 Körber European Science Award
Arun Guthikonda Memorial Lecture & Award (Columbia University)
2004 Spinoza Prize
William G. Dauben Memorial Lecturer (University of Berkeley)
2005 Prelog gold medal (2005)
Solvias Ligand contest award (Switzerland)
2007 James Flack Norris Award from the American Chemical Society (ACS)
2008 Paracelsus medal from the Swiss Chemical Society (SCS)
2009 Chirality medal from the Societa Chimica Italiana (SCI)
2011 Organic Stereochemistry Award from the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC)
2012 Alexander von Humboldt Prize
Grand Prix Scientifique Cino del Duca (French Academy of Sciences)
2013 Lily European Distinguished Science Award
RSC Award for distinguished service (Royal Society of Chemistry)
Maria Sklodowska-Curie Medal and the Jedrzej Sniadecki Medal (Polish Chemical Society)
Yamada-Koga Award, Tokyo, Japan
Nagoya Gold Medal
2014 Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award from the American Chemical Society (ACS)
2015 Netherlands Catalysis and Chemistry Award 2015 from the Royal Dutch
Chemical Society for the Future Solvay Prize
2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry

Nederlands

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