Oct 6, 2021 - Science

Nobel Prize in chemistry awarded for "ingenious" tool to build molecules

Members of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry announcing the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in chemistry in Stockholm, Sweden, on Oct. 6.

Members of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry announce the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in chemistry in Stockholm on Oct. 6. Photo: Jonathan Nickstrand/AFP via Getty Images

Benjamin List and David MacMillan won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their development of asymmetric organocatalysis, an "ingenious tool" to build molecules, the Nobel Foundation announced Wednesday.

Why it matters: Catalysts are used to accelerate chemical reactions and are crucial to producing many commercial products, especially pharmaceuticals. Before List's and MacMillan's discoveries, researchers believed that there were just two types of catalysts available: metals and enzymes.

  • They both independently discovered a third type of catalysis called asymmetric organocatalysis, which works by encouraging chemicals to build upon a framework of carbon atoms, eventually producing new molecules.

What they're saying: “This concept for catalysis is as simple as it is ingenious, and the fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” said Johan Åqvist, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

The big picture: Organocatalysis has developed at an astounding speed since List's and MacMillan's discoveries.

  • It is used in many chemical reactions, including the production of new pharmaceuticals and molecules that can capture light in solar cells.
  • MacMillan is a professor at Princeton University, and List is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany.

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