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

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.

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 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”.

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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Lund scientist creates new plastic from molecule that makes faeces smell

A scientist at Lund University has developed a new sustainable plastic based on indole, the aromatic unit that makes human faeces smell.

Lund scientist creates new plastic from molecule that makes faeces smell
Ping Wang began her PhD at Lund in October 2018. Photo: Lund University
Indole can be produced by several bacteria, occurs naturally in human faeces and has a strong faecal odour. 
But Baozhong Zhang, associate professor at Lund's Centre for Analysis and Synthesis, said that the new biopolyester his PhD student Ping Wang had created was totally odourless. 
“Once you make this into a plastic, it changes completely and it doesn't have any smell,” he told The Local.

Zhang said he had brought Ping Wang to Lund from northern China to help him extend the search for new, sustainable plastics, and decided to test indole as a complex aromatic unit suitable to replace the benzene in PET, the substance used to make plastic bottles. 
“Most plastics are produced from petroleum resources and in order to prevent us from using too much crude oil and to reduce greenhouse gas and carbon emissions from the plastic industry, we would like to make plastics from biomass and sustainable resources,” Zhang said. 
Up until now much of the research has focused on using furan, an aromatic unit which can be made from sugars or pine, to replace benzene. 
“We tried to think a bit broader, to open our eyes a bit, and consider the possibility of using other bio-materials,” Zhang said. “No one had tried this before. We didn't know what property we would get if we incorporated an indole unit into the plastic.” 
He and Wang discovered that the resulting polyester was in many ways superior to PET, able to withstand higher temperatures and to be recycled endlessly, meaning it could be used for plastic coffee cups and even, if plans to increase its melting point are successful, for kettles or teapots. 
The pair published their results in the journal Polymer Chemistry in October. 
Zhang said that he did not understand why the substance had not been investigated previously. 
“I'm curious why this indole, which has such a great potential, has been largely ignored by the scientific community,” he said. “But surprisingly we are the first ones to come out with this test.”
While indole is present in faeces, this does not mean municipal sewage plants will become the plastic factories of the future. Zhang said he did not know how the substance could be produced on a large scale. 
“We know that indole can be made from various resources in nature, it can be made from amino acids, from some plants, but the conversion from biomass to indole, this is not our work,” he said.  
“With this work we're just trying to stimulate the biochemistry people to get interested in this.”