Scientists at a German and US institutes were on Wednesday awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 for developing an ingenious tool that revolutionised construction of molecules.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Benjamin List from Max-Planck-Institut fur Kohlenforschung (Max Planck Institute for Coal Research), Mulheim an der Ruhr, Germany and British-born David W C MacMillan of Princeton University, “for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis”, said a statement.
List and MacMillan developed a precise new tool for molecular construction called organocatalysis.
Many research areas and industries are dependent on chemists’ ability to construct molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the progression of diseases.
This work requires catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions, without participating in the reaction.
The laureates findinsg “had a great impact on pharmaceutical research, and has made chemistry greener,” the statement said.
While catalysts are fundamental tools for chemists, researchers long believed that there were, in principle, just two types of catalysts available: metals and enzymes.
But, in 2000, List and MacMillan, independent of each other, developed a third type of catalysis called asymmetric organocatalysis, building upon small organic molecules.
“This concept for catalysis is as simple as it is ingenious, and the fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” said Johan Aqvist, who is chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
Organic catalysts have a stable framework of carbon atoms, to which more active chemical groups can attach. These often contain common elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, or phosphorus. This means that these catalysts are both environmentally friendly and cheap to produce.
“Organocatalysis has developed at an astounding speed since 2000. List and MacMillan remain leaders in the field, and have shown that organic catalysts can be used to drive multitudes of chemical reactions,” the statement said.
“Using these reactions, researchers can now more efficiently construct anything from new pharmaceuticals to molecules that can capture light in solar cells,” it added.