Movement on the Nanolevel is the Future of Science, says Nobel Prize Winner Ben Feringa

Bratislava, 9 September 2019: Today the world-renowned chemist Ben Lucas Feringa, the creator of the molecular nanocar, received the Grand Gold Medal of Comenius University in Bratislava. Feringa, who is a professor at the University of Groningen, is visiting Slovakia on the occasion of the 71st Congress of Slovak and Czech Chemists, which is being held in Starý Smokovec.

10. 09. 2019 07.41 hod.
By: CU Public Relations Office

Ben Feringa is a specialist in molecular nanotechnology. In 2016 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside Professor Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Sir J. Fraser Stoddart for the design and synthesis of molecular machines. This most prestigious award was recognition of their work in the design of the structure and synthesis of controlled-motion molecules that can perform certain tasks when they are supplied with energy and in the development of molecular machines.

The almost fifty years that Ben Feringa has spent in the field have been influenced by many aspects of organic chemistry. “At the same time, he often feels like a little boy playing with Lego, but at the nanolevel, building wonderful molecules and materials from molecular components, including the medicines of the future,” said Peter Fedor, the dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Comenius University, which proposed this award.

“In the chemical sciences, research across the borders of what is known provides an immense and unexplored area for experiencing joy from discovery,” says Feringa. “In recent decades, chemists have had exceptional success in building miniature objects, essentially molecules. The shift from molecules to dynamic molecular systems is a fundamental challenge in controlling and purposefully using movement on the nanolevel,” he continued. At Comenius University, Professor Feringa spoke about the future of science, which will include nanorobots. “The best way to predict the future is to create it,” he said.

Originally, Feringa focused on asymmetric synthesis, which is a means of preparing compounds in a specific geometric form. “This is important, for instance, in the case of manufacturing medicines, given that the effects of medicines can differ from the geometric form where they are located,” said Professor Radovan Šebesta, an organic chemist at Comenius University. His team has been working with Professor Feringa in developing new methods of asymmetric catalysis.

Subsequently Feringa’s research progressed towards photochemistry as well as molecular switches and motors. Molecular switches are molecules which are capable of reacting to an external stimulus, for instance, by changing their form as a result of the effects of light. This led to the construction of the molecular nanocar, which is a vehicle constructed from a single molecule and which is capable of movement in a certain direction. “The discoveries by Ben Feringa are important for the effective preparation of medicines and the development of smart medicine, reactive materials, and the construction of soft robots,” Professor Šebesta added.

The application of these discoveries is very widespread and is particularly relevant in medicine. There is a focus on the targeted and very specific effect of drugs at a particular time and place in the body. Another area of application is in advanced materials that will be able to change their properties or respond to certain external stimuli.

“The point of science is to look for answers, find a better and more healthy life,  and make everyday activities easier. The work Professor Feringa has done is specifically about these issues. Science needs to have a practical application outside of the laboratory, and it should not just remain in it,” said Comenius University rector Marek Števček. “Our university undertakes scientific endeavour on a level which is respected in Europe. And proof of this is the work of our academics with those in Ben Feringa’s team,” he added.

On 10 September, Feringa will receive the Gold Medal of the Slovak Chemical Society based at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

Professor Feringa has been invited to Slovakia by the Slovak Chemical Society. His visit is also supported by Comenius University in Bratislava, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Slovakia, and the ESET Foundation as a part of ESET Science Award.

More photographs of this event can be seen on the CU Facebook page.