Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded for ‘ingenious tool for building molecules’

Peter Somfai, Member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, announces the winners for the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Peter Somfai, Member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, announces the 2021 winners. Photo: Claudio Bresciani
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, responsible for awarding the Nobel Physics and Chemistry Prizes, has announced the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The prize this year has been awarded to Germany’s Benjamin List and David MacMillan from Scotland, based in the US.

The Nobel Committee stated that the duo were awarded the prize “for their development of a precise new tool for molecular construction: organocatalysis”. The committee further explained that this tool “has had a great impact on pharmaceutical research, and has made chemistry greener”.

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Their tool, which they developed independently of each other in 2000, can be used to control and accelerate chemical reactions, exerting a big impact on drugs research. Prior to their work, scientists believed there were only two types of catalysts — metals and enzymes.

The new technique, which relies on small organic molecules and which is called “asymmetric organocatalysis” is widely used in pharmaceuticals, allowing drug makers to streamline the production of medicines for depression and respiratory infections, among others. Organocatalysts allow several steps in a production process to be performed in an unbroken sequence, considerably reducing waste in chemical manufacturing, the Nobel committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

The Nobel committee gave more information in a press release as to why List and MacMillan were chosen: “Organocatalysis has developed at an astounding speed since 2000. Benjamin List and David MacMillan remain leaders in the field, and have shown that organic catalysts can be used to drive multitudes of chemical reactions. Using these reactions, researchers can now more efficiently construct anything from new pharmaceuticals to molecules that can capture light in solar cells. In this way, organocatalysts are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.”

List and MacMillan, both 53, will share the 10-million-kronor prize.

“I thought somebody was making a joke. I was sitting at breakfast with my wife,” List told reporters by telephone during a press conference after the prize was announced. In past years, he said his wife has joked that he should keep an eye on his phone for a call from Sweden. “But today we didn’t even make the joke,” List said. “It’s hard to describe what you feel in that moment, but it was a very special moment that I will never forget.”


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