Essentially, all motion in living organisms emerges from the collective action of biological molecular machines transforming chemical energy, originally harvested from light, into ordered activity. As a man-made counterpart to nature’s biomolecular machines, chemists have created artificial molecular machines that display controlled and even directional motion in response to light. However, to be of practical value, the motion of these light-fuelled molecular machines will have to be coupled to the rest of the world. Inspired by the complex functional movement seen in the plant and animal world, chemists have undertaken the challenge to harness molecular motion and, so, they have set artificial molecular motors and switches to work and perform useful mechanical action at the macroscopic level. Here, we review these recent developments. We show how modern research has embraced the full complexity of the molecular world by aiming at the design of autonomous, and sometimes adaptive, molecular systems that work continuously under the effect of illumination. We report evidence that molecular motion can be engineered into highly sophisticated movements and that, from a fundamental point of view, continuous movement can only emerge when man-made molecules cooperate, in space and time. Eventually, unravelling the rules of molecular motion will support the creation of molecular materials that produce work continuously under a constant input of energy.
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