In October this year, three scientists were awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work in creating machines from molecules – a development that could signal a leap forward into a completely new kind of technology and electronics.
The process began in 1983 when French chemist Jean-Pierre Sauvage successfully linked two molecules in a chain, thus creating the first building blocks. In 1991, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart then created a ring of molecules which moved along an axle when heat was added. Bernard L. Feringa built on Sauvage and Stoddart’s work by building the world’s first molecular motor, which by 2014 was optimised enough to spin at 12 million revolutions per second.
A mind-boggling one thousand times thinner than a strand of hair, the group have now also engineered these tiny molecules to form a four-wheel drive nanocar that contains motors which when energised, propel the car forward over a surface. The Nobel Prize committee has described the impact of this development as “the first steps into a new world,” with the potential to change the face of healthcare, energy and industry.
Although molecular machines have been around for some time, the Nobel Prize offers molecular engineers the potential to greatly expand the scope of their work by providing more opportunities for funding research and development, as was seen with the 2010 Nobel Prize for physics awarded for work on graphene. This means that in the next few decades, the world will see a different type of electronics emerging – artificial systems that merge biological and solid-state components.
Last year, researchers from Columbia Engineering powered a conventional solid-state CMOS circuit with the biological energy source of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This gives biologically-powered chips the potential to develop new capabilities such as taste and smell by recognising specific molecules.
The applications for molecular electronics will most likely be limited to the medical field for the time being, but the knock-on effect is likely to spill over into all aspects of technological developments, including consumer electronics.
Since the prevailing trend in electronics has always been towards miniaturisation, it’s likely that self-assembling molecular technology will eventually replace bulk materials, reducing overall power consumption.
Several devices have already been developed, such as molecular wires, single-molecule transistors and rectifiers. And although it will be a while before molecular electronics leaves the laboratory and moves onto production lines, everyone in the industry will soon be thinking about the different ways this type of technology could be applied.
As with all new technologies, it’s who identifies and develops viable commercial opportunities first that will stand out among their competitors – as well as who starts engaging in thought leadership with the media about this exciting future trend. Contact us to find out more about creating thought leadership opportunities for your organisation.