Two scientists win Nobel Prize in chemistry for new way of building molecules

Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Chemistry: Two Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry for their innovative ways of building molecules
Fernando Vergara/AP Fernando Vergara/Enlarge this image

Two scientists have won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing "an ingenious tool for building molecules" that is also cheap and environmentally-friendly.

Wednesday's announcement by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was that Benjamin List, of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research, Germany, and David MacMillan at Princeton University, the United States, would share the award.

The two of them independently developed a new type of catalyst twenty years ago. This substance can drive chemical reactions.

Chemicalists used metal catalysts or enzymes as their primary method of generating chemical reactions. These two researchers discovered that small organic molecules could be used to drive many chemical reactions. MacMillan invented the term "organocatalysis" in order to describe this new concept.

The Nobel committee observed that organocatalysis can be particularly useful for researchers who want to make a molecule, and then selectively produce one of the mirror images. This is known as asymmetric organocatalysis. This is especially important in pharmaceuticals.

"The prize is about creating chemical molecules. The laureates have created a truly elegant tool for making chemical molecules, which is simpler than anyone could imagine," Pernilla Wittung–Stafshede, who was a member of Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said at a press conference by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in order to announce the winners.

"The discoveries prompted a completely new way of thinking about how to make chemical molecules. She added that this new toolbox is widely used today, such as in drug discovery." It has already greatly benefited humanity.

List received the news via phone while on vacation with his family. He said that he didn't expect the surprise and noted that he had been eating breakfast with his wife. "Then Sweden appeared on my phone."

List stated, "It's difficult to describe how you feel in that moment." It was a very special moment I will never forget.

The Nobel Prizes in Science have been criticised for overwhelmingly going to men in recent years. The Nobel Prize for Chemistry had previously been won by 185 people before this announcement. Seven of the seven winners were women. All the Nobel Prize winners in medicine, physics and chemistry this year were men.