The Sceptical Chymist | Demons lurking

Published in Chemistry

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I was asked if Dave Leigh’s latest paper in this week’s Nature was all that special after all – Leigh claimed to have recreated James Clerk Maxwell’s famous thought experiment about the second law of thermodynamics and a demon (read the news story I wrote here). But in reality, Leigh didn’t actually recreate the demon, he made a molecular machine that can force a system to go against chemical equilibrium after being inspired by Maxwell. Is that so special?

Some would say yes, very much so. And not just by battling against equilibrium. The complexity demonstrated in Leigh’s system is unprecedented. His machine cleverly traps the ring of his rotaxane at one binding site on the axle when light is shone on the system, skewing the ratio of molecules with the ring on one site or the other away from equilibrium. Easy to say, but the synthesis I was told by one eminent person in the field, “outstrips anything that a traditional synthetic chemist can achieve.”

Are complex systems like Leigh’s the future for chemistry? If chemistry begins to re-create natural processes with mechanical machines, rather than just mimicing natural molecules, what will this mean for the field as a whole? Exciting times beckon.

Katharine Sanderson, (physical sciences reporter, Nature)

ps this is my first post, and while my credentials are being checked I am going undercover as Stuart Cantrill

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