Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for developing the world’s smallest machines, 1,000 times thinner than a human hair but with the potential to revolutionize computer and energy systems.

Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Scottish-born Fraser Stoddart and Dutch scientist Bernard “Ben” Feringa share the 8 million kronor ($930,000) prize for the “design and synthesis of molecular machines,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

Machines at the molecular level have taken chemistry to a new dimension and “will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems,” the academy said.

Practical applications are still far away—the academy said molecular motors are at the same stage that electrical motors were in the first half of the 19th century—but the potential is huge.

Stoddart, 74, a chemistry professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has already developed a molecule-based computer chip with 20 kB memory. Researchers believe chips so small may revolutionize computer technology the way silicon-based transistors once did.

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.

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.

“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?'” Feringa, 65, told reporters in Stockholm by phone. “And now we have a Boeing 747 and an Airbus. So that is a bit how I feel.”

Speaking to French TV channel itele, Sauvage, 71, called the news a memorable moment and a big surprise.
“I have won many prizes, but the Nobel Prize is something very special. It’s the most prestigious prize, the one most scientists don’t even dare to dream of in their wildest dreams,” he said.

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