Two scientists have won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for finding an “ingenious” and environmentally cleaner way to build molecules that can be used to make everything from medicines to food flavourings.
he work of Professor Benjamin List of Germany and Scotland-born Professor David WC MacMillan has allowed scientists to produce those molecules more cheaply, efficiently and safely and with significantly less environmental impact.
“It’s already benefiting humankind greatly,” said Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the Nobel panel.
Making molecules – which requires linking individual atoms together in specific arrangement – is a difficult and slow task. Until the beginning of the millennium, chemists had only two methods – or catalysts – to speed up the process.
That all changed in 2000 when Prof List, of the Max Planck Institute, and Prof MacMillan, of Princeton University in the US, independently reported that small organic molecules could be used to do the same job as big enzymes and metal catalysts.
The new method, known as asymmetric organocatalysis, “is used widely today, for example, in drug discovery and in fine chemicals production”, Ms Wittung-Stafshede said.
Johan Aqvist, chair of the Nobel panel, called the new method as “simple as it is ingenious”.
“The fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” he added.
HN Cheng, president of the American Chemical Society, said the laureates had developed “new magic wands”.
Before the laureates’ work, “the standard catalysts frequently used were metals, which frequently have environmental downsides”, Mr Cheng said.
“They accumulate, they leach, they may be hazardous.”
The catalysts that Prof MacMillan and Prof List pioneered “are organic so they will degrade faster, and they are also cheaper”, he said.
Speaking after the ann- ouncement, Prof List said the award was a “huge surprise”.
“You really made my day today,” the 53-year-old said.
Prof List said he did not initially know Prof MacMillan was working on the same subject and figured his hunch might just be a “stupid idea” – until it worked.
“When I saw it worked, I did feel that this could be something big,” he said.
Since their discovery, the tool has been further refined, making it many times more efficient, said Prof List, adding that the “real revolution” was only just beginning.