The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded on Wednesday to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan for their development of a new tool to build molecules, work that has spurred advances in pharmaceutical research and lessened the impact of chemistry on the environment.
Their work, while unseen by consumers, is an essential part in many leading industries and is vital for research.
Chemists are among those tasked with constructing molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the progression of diseases.
But that work requires catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions without becoming part of the final product.
“For example, catalysts in cars transform toxic substances in exhaust fumes to harmless molecules,” the Nobel committee said in a statement. “Our bodies also contain thousands of catalysts in the form of enzymes, which chisel out the molecules necessary for life.”
The problem was that there were just two types of catalysts available: metals and enzymes.
In 2000, Dr. List and Dr. MacMillan — working independently of each other — developed a third type of catalysis.
It is called asymmetric organocatalysis and builds upon small organic molecules.
“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 Aqvist, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
Who are the winners?
Dr. MacMillan is a Scottish chemist and a professor at Princeton University, where he also headed the department of chemistry from 2010 to 2015. He earned his Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, in 1996 before accepting a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. His research has focused on innovative concepts in synthetic organic chemistry.
Dr. List is a German chemist, born in Frankfurt, and director at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany. He received his Ph.D. in 1997 from Goethe University Frankfurt, before he was appointed to work as an assistant professor at the Scripps Research Institute in California. He is also an honorary professor at the University of Cologne, in Germany.