Mankind has long been fascinated and perhaps envious of the ability of the bird to fly in the air with such ease and elegance. Inspired by the humble wing, the first ever man-made aircraft that could be controlled and sustained was invented by the Wright brothers in the early 1900s. Their first successful flight took one pilot over a distance of 120 feet in 12 seconds, at an altitude of 20 feet. Impressive as this was at the time, we have since come a long way in our aviation technologies. Steaming through the skies above our heads there are now 500 tonne hunks of carefully engineered metal that can carry upwards of 500 people over the entire stretch of the Pacific Ocean in much less than a day. A reasonable guess as to what this post might pertain to would be something along the lines of the mechanics of flight, right? Truth be told, I didn’t think this introduction through very thoroughly, but just go along with it…
Just as we looked towards nature for the design of the plane wing, our attention has been recently caught by bacteria. Its tail-like flagellum that allows it to propel itself towards sustenance is simple yet stunningly effective. Scientists were in search of something as equally elementary, but could be controlled and utilized. Just two years ago the trio of Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, and Bernard L. Feringa were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the design and synthesis of the world’s first molecular machines. These are molecular components that can act mechanically in response to a certain stimuli. Certain double bonds tend to twist and rotate when exposed to light, and this phenomena was used to essentially create molecular hinges around which other parts of the molecule could move around. Although relatively simple at its core, a combination of complex molecule structures allow sophisticated interactions that can result in molecular motors, propellers, switches, sensors, logic gates to name but a few. The chemical background to these molecular machines are rather more involved than I have described here, and I implore you to dive deeper if you so wish.
Currently the development of molecular machines are in their primitive days, and even something as grandiose-sounding as a molecular car turns out in fact to travel at a rate of 9 nanometres per hour, itself being a nanometre in size. However, the pioneering work of the three Nobel laureates has paved the way for a bright future in nanotechnology. Within the next 40 or 50 years, we will be looking at injecting molecular robots into our bodies that will be able to deliver drugs to precise locations through the bloodstream or target specific hostile cells such as cancerous ones, kind of like the microscopic crew in the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage. Besides healthcare there is also a wide range of possibilities for development in the sectors of energy and industry, such as in smart materials like self-cleaning glass – the potential for molecular machines is limitless, we just need to uncover it.
We must remember, however, never to believe that we are high and mighty for being to able to create such wonders. Even though planes have come a long way in their development, we as humans are yet to even create a single cell that goes into making up a bird. We are far from recreating nature’s miracles no matter how hard we try, yet we must keep trying.