Stephen LoebChemistry professor Stephen Loeb uses two bagels to illustrate the concept of interlocking molecules for use as nano-machines.

UWindsor researchers designing molecule-sized factories

UWindsor professor Stephen Loeb’s research into designing and synthesizing molecular machines got a boost last month when the 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to three researchers in the same field.

Just a few nanometres long, these miniature machines are roughly 1/100,000th the thickness of a human hair or a sheet of paper. They have the potential to be used to create new materials, miniaturize computer technology, store energy or deliver medicine on command.

The possibilities are limited only by imagination, says Dr. Loeb, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Molecular machines, or nano-machines, can be created by synthetically interlocking molecules together, allowing the molecular components to move about independently of each other. Shining a light or adding heat to the new structure can manipulate the molecules into becoming an energy-generating machine.

“We are taking our cue from nature, where molecules are naturally linked together and work as machines making new molecules,” Loeb says. “We are not mimicking biology — that would be way too complicated. But we are taking those concepts with the understanding that nature has four billion design years on us.”

In nature, molecules move constantly and randomly. In nano-machines, molecules are synthetically attached and a stimulus is used to switch their motion on and off like a machine. Loeb’s team, in collaboration with his faculty colleague Robert Schurko, proved this could be done within a solid material.

“We were the first researchers to do this. We took this concept into the third dimension by putting it in a solid,” says Loeb. “This gives the potential for manipulating bulk properties of solids because by switching something on or off, you could manipulate and change the molecular components of the solid, whether it is the electrical properties, magnetic properties or optical properties.

“If we have that kind of precise control, we can start making new materials for all sorts of things.”

This research was published in May 2015 as the article A molecular shuttle that operates inside a metal-organic framework in the journal Nature Chemistry. That article was cited among Nature’s retrospective of the most influential researchers in the field of molecular machinery in its piece 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Loeb is one of only four researchers quoted in the article, Molecular Machines, published in February 2016 by Chemistry World, the journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He is also referenced in an analysis by the The Globe and Mail, Chemists behind world’s tiniest machines win Nobel prize.

Bulent Mutus, head of the chemistry department, points to this acknowledgement of the impact of Loeb’s work.

“Dr. Loeb's accomplishments have been mentioned as one of the few critical studies related to the Nobel prize in the area of molecular machines,” Dr. Mutus says. “He has pioneered a new area of research that links molecular machines and molecular organized frameworks, an area that might very well win him a Nobel in the future.”