Nobel Prize for two scientists who ‘made chemistry greener’

6 Oct 2021

Illustration of Benjamin List and David MacMillan. Image: Niklas Elmehed/Nobel Prize

Benjamin List and David MacMillan developed a new kind of catalyst that has applications in the pharma, materials and energy industries.

Two scientists who developed a tool for building molecules, which has helped pharmaceutical research and made chemistry greener, have been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Benjamin List and David MacMillan created a new kind of catalysis called asymmetric organocatalysis that helps in the construction of molecules.

Catalysts are needed to construct molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the progression of diseases. Traditionally, researchers only had two kinds of catalysts: metals and enzymes. In 2000, however, List and MacMillan independently developed organic catalysts building upon small organic molecules.

This green chemistry aims to reduce or eliminate hazardous substances from chemical processes.

“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.

Since its inception, organocatalysis has come a long way in its application. Most notably, it is used in the pharmaceutical industry to produce substances that can otherwise only be isolated in small amounts from rare plants or deep-sea organisms.

Organocatalysis, a term coined by MacMillan, is used to produce important medications such as paroxetine for anxiety and depression, and the antiviral oseltamivir for treating respiratory infections.

“The discovery has taken molecular construction to an entirely new level,” the committee said. “It has not only made chemistry greener, but also made it much easier to produce asymmetric molecules.”

Who are they?

Frankfurt-born List is a German chemist who is a director and scientific member at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research. He is also an honorary professor at the University of Cologne’s Department of Chemistry.

After studying chemistry in the Free University of Berlin, he got his PhD from Goethe University Frankfurt. He won the German Research Foundation’s Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize in 2016, the country’s highest honour in research.

“List wondered whether an entire enzyme was really required to obtain a catalyst. He tested whether an amino acid called proline could catalyse a chemical reaction. It worked brilliantly,” the committee said of his role in the development of organocatalysis.

Meanwhile, Scottish-born MacMillan is a professor of chemistry at Princeton University, where he heads the MacMillan Group. After studying chemistry at the University of Glasgow, he left for the US to get a PhD at the University of California, Irvine.

After stints as a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and California Institute of Technology, he joined the faculty of Princeton’s Department of Chemistry, where he was chair from 2010 to 2015.

The Nobel Prize committee said that MacMillan’s initial work with metal catalysts was unsuccessful because they were easily destroyed by moisture. “He wondered whether he could develop a more durable type of catalyst using simple organic molecules,” the committee said. “One of these proved to be excellent at asymmetric catalysis.”

Earlier this week, three scientists from the US, Germany and Italy were awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics for finding “hidden patterns in the climate”, while two US scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering how we sense heat and touch.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic