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The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021: Asymmetric Organocatalysis

By Gerald Ondrey |

Today, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2021 Nobel prize in Chemistry to Benjamin List from the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung (Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany); and David W.C. MacMillan from Princeton University (Princeton, N.J.), for the development of asymmetric organocatalysts. This has had a great impact on pharmaceutical research, and has made chemistry greener.

In 2000, List and MacMillan, independent of each other, developed a third type of catalysis called asymmetric organocatalysis. “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,” says Johan Åqvist, who is chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

Organic catalysts have a stable framework of carbon atoms, to which more active chemical groups can attach. These often contain common elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur or phosphorus. This means that these catalysts are both environmentally friendly and cheap to produce. The rapid expansion in the use of organic catalysts is primarily due to their ability to drive asymmetric catalysis. When molecules are being built, situations often occur where two different molecules can form, which are each other’s mirror image. Chemists will often only want one of these, particularly when producing pharmaceuticals. 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.

Benjamin List was born 1968 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. He received his Ph.D. in 1997 from Goethe University Frankfurt. He is currently the director of the the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany

David W.C. MacMillan was born 1968 in Bellshill, U.K. He received his Ph.D. in 1996 from the University of California at Irvine, and is now a professor at Princeton University.

Source: www.nobelprize.org

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