2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry honors discoverers of new catalyst class
The 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Benjamin List and David MacMillan, for their work in developing a new class of catalyst in 2000. The technique is based on small organic molecules and has been instrumental in pharmaceutical research since.
Catalysts are substances that trigger or speed up chemical reactions without themselves becoming part of the final product, and as such, they’re instrumental in chemistry and biology. For a long time it was thought that only two types of catalysts existed – metals and enzymes – but around 20 years ago the new Nobel laureates discovered a third.
Working independently of each other, Benjamin List and David MacMillan developed a technique called asymmetric organocatalysis, which uses small organic molecules. These are based around a stable frame of carbon atoms, which can house active chemical groups containing elements like oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus.
Organocatalysts have a few advantages. Since they’re made up of common, organic elements, they’re much cheaper to produce and are more environmentally friendly than other catalysts. But more importantly they can be asymmetric, creating either “left-handed” or “right-handed” versions of molecules. Other catalysts produce both at once, even though scientists will often only need one or the other for a specific task.
In the two decades since List’s and MacMillan’s development of asymmetric organocatalysis, progress has moved swiftly, allowing scientists to improve pharmaceuticals, design better molecules for solar cells, and many other applications.
The announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry follows prizes awarded earlier in the week – this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics went to three scientists for finding hidden patterns in complex systems, such as Earth’s climate and weather systems, while the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to the discoverers of touch receptors in the skin that allow us to perceive temperature and pressure.
Source: Nobel Prize