Together with two other researchers, Ben Feringa, an organic chemistry professor at the RUG, was awarded the highest prize in science. The 65-year-old Feringa, the French scientist Jean-Pierre Sauvage and the Scottish James-Frazer Stoddart received the prize for their research of molecular nano machines.
‘It’s bizarre’, Feringa says. ‘I was not expecting it, but I dreamed that it would happen.’
Feringa got the call from Stockholm on Wednesday morning. ‘I couldn’t believe it at first. The man on the other end of the line had to reassure me that he was really part of the Nobel committee. It’s a huge honour, not only for me but for everyone who has worked on this research for years.’
Stratingh Institute for Chemistry director Adriaan Minnaard found out when he heard loud bellowing in the hallway. ‘I was startled, I thought that something had gone wrong. But it was bellowing out of joy.’
In 1999, Feringa created the first molecular motor, and he has continued tinkering with it ever since. He eventually developed one which could propel a cylinder which was 10,000 times larger than the motor itself. It sounds complicated, Feringa himself admits. ‘To many people, it seems more like science fiction.’
And nanotechnology is vitally important for the future, he says. ‘We are running out of natural resources, so we have to come up with new and better processes. We need smart materials that can adapt to their environment and can pick up signals.’ Nano technology has the potential to do that, according to the brand new Nobel Prize winner.
‘We are now doing research into how to build molecular motors inside antibiotics. In doing so, we are trying to control the motor within the medication so that it can be used in a specific place to treat an infection without damaging any other parts of the body.’
But nanotechnology is not only applicable to antibiotics. Feringa suggests that it could also be used to avoid chemotherapy when treating cancer or to find tumours.
Feringa also emphasises the importance of fundamental research. He says that too much emphasis has been placed in applied research over the past ten years. ‘But without fundamental research, we wouldn’t have iPhones, flat screens or electric cars.’
According to Feringa, that type of research is absolutely crucial for these kinds of breakthroughs. The Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences, where Feringa serves as vice president, called on the government earlier this year to make a one billion euros in additional funding available for fundamental research. ‘It’s vital. The Netherlands could lead the pack. We do amazing things with relatively little funding if you compare us to other countries.’
Feringa’s fellow winners – Jean-Pierre Sauvage and James-Frazer Stoddart – also conveyed their disbelief and appreciation for the prize.
Sauvage is an emeritus professor at the University of Strasbourg. In 1994, his research group made ‘one molecule rotate around the other in a controlled manner when energy was applied’, according to the BBC.
‘I have won many prizes, but the Nobel Prize is something very special’, Sauvage says. ‘It’s the most prestigious prize, the one most scientists don’t even dare to dream of in their wildest dreams’.
Stoddart, a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University in the United States, was born in Scotland. The BBC reports that Stoddart’s contribution to molecular nanotechnology was ‘threading a molecular ring on to a rod-like structure that acted as an atlas.’ The ring could be manipulated into moving like a ‘tiny shuttle’ by applying heat.
Professor Stoddart took advantage of the international spotlight to warn against the consequences of Brexit for internationally collaborative science. ‘I am distressed by the fact that the UK is looking at a situation that would cut off that supply [of collaborators]’, he says. ‘Science is a global pursuit, it must allow people to come and go across different cultures from different countries.’