The creators of a technique to build molecules, awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Scientists David WC McMillan and Benjamin List are the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of a tool for building molecules, organocatalysis, announced the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.

The uses of asymmetric organocatalysis include the research of new pharmaceuticals and it has also contributed to making chemistry more environmentally friendly.

Many research areas and industries depend on the ability of chemists to build molecules that can form durable, elastic materials, store energy in batteries, or inhibit the progression of disease. This work, according to the Nobel Foundation on its website, requires catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions, without becoming part of the final product.

For example, catalytic converters in cars transform toxic substances in exhaust gases into harmless molecules. Our body also contains thousands of catalysts in the form of enzymes, which carve out the molecules necessary for life.

Catalysts are thus fundamental tools for chemists, but researchers have long believed that, in principle, there were only two types of catalysts available: metals and enzymes.

“Benjamin List and David MacMillan receive the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry because in 2000, independently, they developed a third type of catalysis. It is called asymmetric organocatalysis and it is based on small organic molecules,” they indicate from the Nobel Foundation.

“This concept of catalysis is as simple as it is ingenious, and the truth is that many people have wondered why it did not occur to us before,” says Johan Åqvist, who chairs the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

Cheap and respectful with the environment

Organic catalysts have a stable carbon atom structure to which more active chemical groups can be attached. They often contain common elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, or phosphorus. This means that these catalysts are environmentally friendly and cheap to produce.

The rapid expansion of the use of organic catalysts is mainly due to their ability to drive asymmetric catalysis. When building molecules, there are often situations in which two different molecules can be formed that, like our hands, are the mirror image of the other. Scientists often want only one of them, especially when they produce pharmaceuticals.

Organocatalysis has developed at an astonishing speed since 2000. Benjamin List and David MacMillan continue to be leaders in this field and have shown that organic catalysts can be used to drive a multitude of chemical reactions. Thanks to these reactions, researchers can more efficiently build from new pharmaceutical products to molecules capable of capturing light in solar cells. In this way, organocatalysts bring great benefit to humanity.


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