“They have developed molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added,” the jury said.
“The molecular motor is at the same stage as the electric motor was in the 1830s, when scientists displayed various spinning cranks and wheels, unaware that they would lead to electric trains, washing machines, fans and food processors."
Molecular machines will “most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems," it said.
The three will share the eight million Swedish kronor (832,000 euros) prize equally.
The first step towards a molecular machine was taken by Sauvage in 1983, when he succeeded in linking together two ring-shaped molecules to form a chain.
Normally, molecules are joined by strong bonds in which the atoms share electrons, but in the chain they were instead linked by a freer mechanical bond.
“For a machine to be able to perform a task it must consist of parts that can move relative to each other. The two interlocked rings fulfilled exactly this requirement," the Nobel jury said.
The second step was taken by Stoddart in 1991, when he threaded a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle and demonstrated that the ring was able to move along the axle.
“Among his developments... are a molecular lift, a molecular muscle and a molecule-based computer chip,” the jury said.
Feringa was meanwhile the first person to develop a molecular motor – in 1999 he was able to make a molecular rotor blade to spin continually in the same direction. Using molecular motors, he has also designed a nanocar.
The chemistry prize is the third Nobel to be announced this week.
The peace prize will be announced on Friday, the economics prize on October 10 and the literature prize on October 13.
The press statement released by the committee mentions that the three laureates have taken molecular systems out of equilibrium's stalemate and into energy-filled states in which their movements can be controlled.