This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded jointly to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan “for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis.” In other words, for the invention in 2000 of an environmentally friendly and cost-effective way to precisely construct molecules.
“It’s already benefiting humankind, greatly,” said Pernilla Wittung Stafshede, a member of the Nobel committee for chemistry, adding that their discovery “initiated a totally new way of thinking for how to put together chemical molecules.”
“This new toolbox is used widely today, for example in drug discovery, and in fine chemicals production and is already benefiting humankind greatly,” Wittung-Stafshede added.
List and MacMillan’s invention has since become a “staple for creating a wealth of materials integral to our lives,” as CNET explained.
“I thought someone was making a joke with me,” List said to the committee when he learned he had won the Nobel Prize. “I was having breakfast with my wife.”
“Sweden appears on my phone, and I look at her, she looks at me and I run out of the coffee shop to the street and, you know, that was amazing. It was very special. I will never forget,” he said.
“I hope I live up to this recognition and continue discovering amazing things,” List told reporters.
“In 2000, the two researchers uncovered a third kind of catalyst — a substance which brings about a chemical reaction — called asymmetric organocatalysis. Scientists had previously believed that there were just two types of catalysts: metals and enzymes. Enzymes contain hundreds of amino acids or proteins, but the winners were able to demonstrate that a single organic molecule can act as a catalyst,” CNN reported.
“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. Meanwhile, the committee credited them with “bringing the greatest benefit to humankind,” with their invention being used in a multitude of ways, including to create new pharmaceuticals — such as blood pressure, respiratory infection and depression medication — and, as CNN reported, “building molecules that capture light in solar cells.”
As The New York Times reported, Peter Somfai, a member of the Nobel Committee, compared the tool to a new player on a chessboard. “You can think about the game in a different way, and you can execute the game in a different way,” he said after the Nobel conference on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, H. N. Cheng, the president of the American Chemical Society, said the invention goes beyond a new player. “It’s more than just a chess piece. They have opened up the board,” Dr. Cheng said. “Now it is up to you to play the game.”
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded annually by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and is one of the five Nobel Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895.
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