CHICAGO (CBS) — A Northwestern University chemistry professor was among three scientists to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday, for developing the world’s tiniest machines, an invention that could have major influence on the future of computers, sensors, and energy storage.

Northwestern University chemistry professor Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, 74, has been credited with developing molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a specific task when energy is added.

“This news that came at 4 a.m. this morning was something of a shock. Of course, when it happens to you, you always think it could be a hoax, and my first response was to tune my ear in, and I could hear English being spoken with a Swedish accent. For once, in chemistry, Stockholm has recognized a piece of chemistry that is extremely fundamental,” Stoddart said at a news conference at Northwestern on Wednesday.

Scottish-born Stoddart and two others – Jean-Pierre Sauvage of France and Bernard Feringa of the Netherlands – received the extraordinary honor from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for their work on developing molecular machines.

“They are really very tiny, these structures; only a few nanometers in length, and as a comparison, a strand of length is more than 1,000 times thicker,” Nobel Committee member Olof Ramstrom said.

The Nobel winners’ work on molecular machines could lead to the development of new materials, sensors, and energy storage systems.

“I feel a little bit like the Wright Brothers who were flying 100 years ago for the first time, and then people were saying ‘Why do we need a flying machine?’ And now we have the Boeing 747,” Feringa said.

While practical applications are still a long way off for molecular machines, the potential is huge. Stoddart has already developed a molecule-based computer chip with 20 kB memory. Researchers believe chips so small could revolutionize computer technology the way silicon-based transistors once did.

Stoddart said the Nobel Prize for their work also can and should draw more attention to fundamental science.

The academy said the laureates’ work has inspired other researchers to build increasingly advanced molecular machinery, including a robot that can grasp and connect amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Researchers are also hoping to develop a new kind of battery using this technology.

Born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, Stoddart joined the Northwestern faculty in January 2008, focusing on nanotechnology.

Feringa, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, leads a research group that in 2011 built a “nanocar,” a minuscule vehicle with four molecular motors as wheels.

Sauvage is professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg and director of research emeritus at France’s National Center for Scientific Research.

This was the second time a Northwestern University professor has won a Nobel Prize for chemistry. The last time was in 1998, when the late John A. Pople shared the prize for his theories on materials science.

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