The 2016 Nobel Chemistry Prize was awarded to a trio behind some of the world's tiniest machines.

Story highlights

Nano four-wheel drive car, tiny lift and molecular muscle built

Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences says the technology could lead to a revolution

CNN —  

The 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to three European molecular scientists who developed the world’s smallest machines.

The prize went to Jean-Pierre Sauvage of the University of Strasbourg in France; Sir James Fraser Stoddart of Northwestern University in the United States; and Bernard L Feringa of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands for the “design and synthesis of molecular machines.”

The laureate medal featuring the profile of Alfred Nobel.

“The 2016 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have miniaturized machines and taken chemistry to a new dimension,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

The men, who have researched both independently and with each other, will share the 8 million kronor ($933,000) prize between them.

According to the Nobel Prize Twitter account, Stoddart said: “It’s not just a scientific family, it’s almost a biological family; we’re very close to each other.”

Another tweet explained that Sauvage took the first step in 1983 by linking two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain.

Stoddart in 1991 developed a rotaxane, a dumbbell-shaped molecular structure that enabled him to build a molecular lift, a molecular muscle and a molecule-based computer chip.

Feringa in 1999 was the first person to develop a molecular motor and in 2011 designed a four-wheel-drive nanocar.

“I could hardly believe that it worked,” Feringa said of the first time they built a molecular machine, the Nobel Prize committee tweeted.

What does this mean?

The Academy’s Professor Sara Snogerup says the nanomachines we are talking about are so small we can’t see them, even with a light telescope. In fact, they are up to 10,000 times thinner than a hair.

These tiny machines that we can’t even see have enormous potential. The Academy explained that the molecular motor was at the same stage as the electric motor 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.”

Medical studies show that molecular technology could lead to the development of machines that are so small they could be swallowed or implanted into human bodies with little negative effect. They could be used, for example, to fight disease in the body, to repair damaged tissue, and even to probe DNA structures.

MORE: Nobel in Physics awarded to British trio

Very impressive… who else was in the running for it?

The organizers of the Nobel Prize never release an official list of nominees, but there is always speculation about who will win the award.

This year, experts and science publications guessed the award might go to George M. Church and Feng Zhang for a genome-editing method in mouse and human cells, which takes a step toward rewriting genetic code to avert disease.

Also tipped was Dennis Lo Yuk Ming, who developed a noninvasive prenatal test for detecting Down’s syndrome in the fetus. And experts thought Hiroshi Maeda and Yasuhiro Matsumura could win for a key finding for cancer therapeutics.

MORE: Nobel in Medicine goes to cell researcher

Remind me who won last year?

Thomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar were jointly awarded the prize for “mechanistic studies of DNA repair” in 2015. The professors mapped, at a molecular level, how cells repair damaged DNA and safeguard the genetic information.

Did you know…

The Nobel prize in 1918 went to German national Fritz Haber, whose Haber-Bosch process is credited with both the large-scale synthesis of fertilizers and explosives. Food production for billions of people depends on this method for producing nitrogen fertilizers, but Haber’s role in building chemical explosives also gave him a reputation as the “father of chemical warfare.”