Work allowed scientists to produce molecules more cheaply, efficiently, safely — and with significantly less environmental impact.
Two scientists won the Nobel Prize for chemistry Wednesday for finding an “ingenious” and environmentally cleaner way to build molecules that can be used to make everything from medicines to food flavorings, the AP reports.
The work of Benjamin List of Germany and Scotland-born David W.C. MacMillan has allowed scientists to produce those molecules more cheaply, efficiently, 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 List, of the Max Planck Institute, and MacMillan, of Princeton University, independently reported that small organic molecules can 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,” said Wittung-Stafshede.
Johan Åqvist, 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.
H.N. Cheng, president of the American Chemical Society, said the laureates developed “new magic wands.”
Before the laureates’ work, “the standard catalysts frequently used were metals, which frequently have environmental downsides,” said Cheng. “They accumulate, they leach, they may be hazardous.”
The catalysts that MacMillan and List pioneered “are organic so they will degrade faster, and they are also cheaper,” he said.
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