The ‘post-truth’ era of fake news is nothing new, it seems. It has long been claimed in the media that Prince Charles warned that self-replicating nano-bots could turn the world into ‘grey goo’ – a phrase he denies using. In fact, the Prince was merely quoting a warning from nanoscientist Dr Eric Drexler, who later walked back such claims. Prince Charles did say that new technology had to be used “wisely and appropriately” but lauded nanotechnology as a "triumph of human ingenuity", saying: "Some of the work may have fundamental benefits to society, such as enabling the construction of much cheaper fuel-cells, or new ways of combating ill-health.”
The science-fiction apocalyptic image is far from the truth, but understandable given the incredible ingenuity involved in creating miniature mechanical devices at an atomic scale. In fact, it wasn't until 1981, with the development of the scanning tunneling microscope that could ‘see’ individual atoms, that modern nanotechnology became possible. The 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry rewarded three pioneers in the field – Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa – for their design and production of molecular machines which can perform a controlled task when energy is added.
Frenchman Sauvage set the wheels in motion, quite literally, by refining a technique to produce molecular hoops in a chain, with each link capable of independent movement. This formed the basic building block for more advanced nano engines.
Fraser Stoddart developed the next step with an innovative system called a rotaxane. He threaded a molecular ring onto the thin axle of a dumbbell and demonstrated that the ring was capable of controlled movement along the axle. This led to the development of molecular devices as diverse as a pump, a molecular muscle, a valve capable of opening and closing at will and even a molecule-based computer chip.
Stoddart performed much of his work at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where his team produced a large-scale ‘ultra-dense’ memory device that stores information using controllable molecular switches. This is an important step toward the creation of molecular computers that are much smaller and potentially more powerful than today’s silicon-based models. Stoddart himself said: “This research is the culmination of a long-standing dream that these molecules could be used for information storage.”
He also developed interlocked, self-assembling molecules called ‘suitanes’, named for their appearance like a limbed torso in a suit. “Discovering the way to dress a molecule with another one is a prelude to constructing artificial systems reminiscent of living cells”, said Stoddart.
James Fraser Stoddart was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in May 1942 and grew up on a farm near Carrington, Midlothian, where he attended the local school before going on to Melville College in Edinburgh. At the University of Edinburgh he earned his BSc in 1964 and PhD in 1967, after which he moved to Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada as a postdoctoral fellow, returning to Britain in 1970 as a research fellow at the University of Sheffield. He stayed on as a lecturer, and later reader in chemistry, meanwhile working as a visiting fellow at UCLA and spending three years (1978-81) at the ICI Corporate Laboratory in Runcorn, Cheshire. During that time he was awarded a DSc degree at Edinburgh (1980) for his research into stereochemistry beyond the molecule. In 1990 he became chair of organic chemistry at the University of Birmingham, and in 1997 moved to UCLA the Winstein Professor in 1997. In 2002, he joined the California NanoSystems Institute, rising to director in 2007, and in 2008 joined Northwestern University as a Board of Trustees Professor, establishing a Mechanostereochemistry Group in Evanston, Illinois.
Stoddart’s awards include the Albert Einstein World of Science Award in 2007. He was appointed a Knight Bachelor in 2007. In 1968, he married fellow Scottish chemist Norma Scholan, who later worked with him and with whom he has two children – daughter Alison is also a chemist and Chief Editor of the journal Nature Reviews: Materials. After Norma’s death in 2004 the family set up an annual award in her name for Academic Excellence and Outstanding Citizenship at UCLA.
Royal Society Research Professor David Leigh, one of many scientists trained by Stoddart, paid tribute to him, saying: "The credit for making molecular machines attractive to chemists goes to Fraser Stoddart. He had the vision to realise that these architectures gave you the possibility of large amplitude-controlled motions, and that that could be the basis of molecular machines."