Nobel Prize in chemistry awarded to scientists for tool that builds better catalysts

By Sabrina Imbler, Marc Santora and Cora Engelbrecht

STOCKHOLM – The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded Wednesday (6) to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan for their development of a new tool to build molecules, work that has spurred advances in pharmaceutical research and allowed scientists to construct catalysts with considerably less impact on the environment.

The process developed by List and MacMillan, while unseen by consumers, has led to a “gold rush” in the field, the Nobel Committee wrote. Known as organocatalysis, it has helped those who apply chemistry to real-world problems to build more precise catalysts that reduce waste and streamline the production of existing pharmaceuticals.

Peter Somfai, a member of the Nobel Committee, compared the tool to a new player on a chessboard. “You can think about the game in a different way, and you can execute the game in a different way,” he said after the Nobel conference Wednesday.

H.N. Cheng, president of the American Chemical Society, said List and MacMillan’s tool goes beyond a new player. “It’s more than just a chess piece. They have opened up the board,” Cheng said. “Now it is up to you to play the game.”

In 1835, Swedish chemist Jacob Berzelius described a phenomenon in which certain substances could galvanize a chemical reaction. These substances were named catalysts, and the process was called catalysis. Since then, scientists have discovered many catalysts that can build up and break down molecules, enabling inventions such as plastics, perfumes and pharmaceuticals.

Before 2000, scientists assumed all catalysts were either a metal or an enzyme. Metal catalysts, which can temporarily accommodate electrons or offer them to other molecules during chemical processes, can be toxic and environmentally taxing.

Enzymes, which are proteins found in nature, are the catalysts that form complicated and vital molecules, like cholesterol and chlorophyll. But “enzymes are cumbersome,” Cheng said, and the process led to vast amounts of waste.

In 2000, List and MacMillan — working independently of each other — developed a new type of catalysis that used organic molecules called asymmetric organocatalysis.

Organic molecules, such as carbohydrates, are called that because they build all living things. The researchers discovered “cheaper, smaller and safer” catalysts that used organic molecules had the same rich chemistry as metal compounds, according to Tehshik Yoon, a chemist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their technique was also simpler and more environmentally friendly.

-New York Times



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