German Benjamin List and Scottish-American David MacMillan won Wednesday the Nobel Chemistry Prize. They developed a method to build molecules, which has spurred new drug development, increased production, and made chemistry more sustainable.
They are used to control and speed up chemical reactions.
Scientists believed that there were only two types or catalysts metals and enzymes before they started their research.
This new method, which uses small organic molecules, is known as "asymmetric organocatalysis" and is used extensively in pharmaceuticals. It allows for the creation of medications for depression and other respiratory infections to be streamlined.
The Nobel committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stated that organocatalysts allow multiple steps to be completed in a single sequence. This reduces waste in chemical manufacturing.
MacMillan and List, both 53 years old, will share the 10-million-kronor ($1.1 million, one-million euro) prize.
"I thought someone was making a joke. List said that she was at breakfast with her wife during a telephone interview after the announcement of the prize.
He said that his wife used to joke with him about how he should watch his phone in case he receives a call from Sweden.
List, who is the Max Planck Institute's director in Germany, stated that "But today, we didn’t even make the joke."
He phoned MacMillan, a Scottish-born American journalist, to report the news. But the Princeton professor was not convinced and went back home.
MacMillan said that while he is incredibly happy, he also struggles to understand the world around him.
List answered a question about the future of research and said that he had "a few more ideas".
"I like to push the boundaries. "Can we do things that are just impossible?" List stated to reporters. "I hope that I live up to this recognition, and continue discovering incredible things."
MacMillan was the son of a housekeeper and a steel worker. He told AFP that his Scottish public school education is what contributed to his success.
His lab's research on "photoredox catalyst" will be his next breakthrough. It uses visible light to break down and join atomic bonds one electron at time.
The Academy explained that the award was given because "many industries and research areas are dependent upon chemists being able to construct molecules that form elastic and durable materials and store energy in batteries, or inhibit the progression and development of disease."
It added that catalysts are substances that control and accelerate chemical reaction without being part of the final product.
List was the first person to show that the amino acid proline, which he called his favorite catalyst could drive an "aldol reaction", which is when carbon atoms are bonded together from two molecules.
Proline is a great tool for chemists. It's cheaper than both metals or enzymes. The Academy stated that proline is an extremely simple, inexpensive, and environmentally-friendly molecule.
Their discovery has seen "almost a gold rush" in terms of developments in the field. List and MacMillan designed "multiples of stable and cheap organocatalysts", as the Nobel committee observed.
In 2011, for example, researchers were able make strychnine production more efficient by reducing the number of chemical reactions from 29 to 12.
Analysts had indicated that the chemistry field was open to all before Wednesday's announcement.
Clarivate maintains a list with potential Nobel Prize winners. It says that more than 70 researchers were eligible to receive the award, given the thousands upon thousands of citations in their scientific papers.
The Nobel season continues on Thursday with the most closely followed prizes: literature on Thursday and peace on Friday. On Monday, the winner of economics will be announced.
On Monday, the 2021 Nobel Season kicked off with the medicine prize. It went to Ardem Patapoutian and David Julius for their breakthroughs in the treatment of chronic pain.
The Tuesday physics prize was followed by Syukuro Manabe, a US-Japanese scientist, and Klaus Hasselmann, a Japanese scientist, for their climate models. The other half went to Giorgio Parisi, an Italian scientist, for his work on disordered materials theory and random processes.