The 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to two researchers who developed a new tool for molecular construction. The German Benjamin List, from the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research, and the British David WC MacMillan, from the University of Princeton (USA), are responsible for the asymmetric organocatalysis. The discovery had a big impact on pharmaceutical research and made chemistry greener.
Many areas of research and industries depend on chemists’ ability to build molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries, or inhibit the progression of disease. This work requires catalysts: substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions, but are not part of the final product. Car catalysts, for example, transform toxic substances in exhaust gases into harmless molecules. Our bodies also contain thousands of catalysts in the form of enzymes, which sculpt the molecules necessary for life.
Catalysts are therefore fundamental tools for chemists, but researchers have long believed that there were, in principle, only two types of catalysts available: metals and enzymes. Benjamin List and David MacMillan receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 because in 2000 they, independent of each other, developed a third type of catalysis. It is called asymmetric organocatalysis and is based on small organic molecules.
“This concept of catalysis is as simple as it is ingenious, and the fact is, many people wonder why we didn’t think about it sooner,” said Johan Åqvist, chairman of the Nobel Committee on Chemistry.
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