The 2016 Chemistry Nobel Prize has been awarded to scientists Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L Feringa for "their design and production of molecular machines".

The tiny, complex molecular structures each of them have designed are the world's smallest machinery. They have controllable movements and can perform a task when energy is added.

Throughout human development, the design of machines of different types has been central to technological progress and crucial to improve people's quality of life. Machines have been at the core of the Industrial Revolution, bringing enormous changes to our way of life.

In past decades, scientists' objective has been to push the limits of machine construction. One of the results has been that there have been many attempts at building miniaturised machines of ever smaller size.

The laureates of the 2016 Nobel Prize have pushed back the limits of this endeavour by working to make molecular-sized machines. With well-designed experiments they showed it was possible to create molecular-level machines.

Three steps, a giant leap for molecular machinery

Sauvage was the first to obtain tangible success in 1983, when he succeeded in linking two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain, known as a catenane. These molecules were linked by mechanical bonds, which allowed the different molecules to perform movement relative to each other – just like a machine.

In 1991, Fraser Stoddart took a second important step in the direction of molecular machinery. He developed a molecular structure known as rotaxane. In simple terms, he threaded a molecular ring on to a thin molecular axle and demonstrated that the ring was able to move along the axle. Based on this work, he was later able to design a molecular lift, a molecular muscle and a molecule-based computer chip.

Finally, Feringa was the first person to develop a molecular motor in 1999. Indeed, he succeeded in making a molecular rotor blade to spin continually in the same direction. This discovery has led him to rotate a glass cylinder that is 10,000 times bigger than the motor. He has also designed a nanocar.

Thanks to their work, it is now possible to have molecules that are into energy-filled states. In a near future, they will possibly used to develop new materials, sensors and energy storage systems.