OCT 13, 2021 4:00 PM PDT

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry

WRITTEN BY: Hannah Daniel

It’s Nobel Prize season, and the third to be awarded was in the field of Chemistry. The winners were two men working on the same project, just an ocean apart.

Benjamin List of the Max-Planck Institute in Germany and David W.C. MacMillan of Princeton University shared the prestigious awards this year for their work on asymmetric organocatalysis. The following video was taken directly after the winners were announced:

 Let’s break this down for a moment: what is a catalyst? And more importantly, what are asymmetric organic catalysts?

A catalyst is defined as something that speeds up a reaction or makes a reaction possible. In more scientific terms, they are substances that produce a chemical reaction without being used up in said reaction. The most commonly known catalysts are enzymes, but small molecules containing metals can also be used as catalysts. However, each of these comes with a caveat: enzymes are often large, clunky, and contain long strings of amino acids. Metals are also problematic because they can be toxic and bind tightly to the compounds they modify.

Organic catalysts, then, are catalysts made from organic molecules that are neither enzymes nor metals. They are smaller than enzymes and less toxic than metal-bound catalysts. It starts with a scaffold of carbon atoms, and then active chemical groups are attached to the carbon frame to drive reactions. Since the chemical groups are mostly made from common elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, or phosphorus, they are also cheap to produce and environmentally friendly.

The asymmetry comes from the fact that these organic catalysts can drive reactions to form two forms of the same compound. These forms are mirror images of each other, but they can have different properties— they’ve been compared to left and right hands.

Chemists and pharmacists usually want one form of a molecule, and asymmetric catalysis allows them to produce one form of the molecule with a few changes to the structure of the catalyst. 

These organic catalysts were discovered back in 2000 by MacMillan and List separately of one another. This was the third type of catalyst to be discovered, after enzymes and metals. These new catalysts have revolutionized the field of chemistry. Notably, MacMillan and List’s findings have been used in pharmaceuticals, helping to develop drugs for high blood pressure, mental illness, and respiratory infections.

While the discovery of organic catalysts was made 20 years ago, the award was given in 2021 due to the improvements and ingenuities of the field, especially the more complex discoveries that have come to light in recent years.

Interestingly enough, this is the seventh year that the Nobel Committee has given the prize in chemistry to research concerning catalysts. MacMillan and List’s research on organic catalysts has been deemed the “third pillar of catalysts” by the Nobel Committee, making this year’s prize an important one for catalytic chemists everywhere.

Sources: The Nobel Prize, Science, CNN

About the Author
BS Biology
Hannah Daniel (she/they) is a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, where she received a Bachelor of Science in Biology with an additional minor in Creative Writing. Currently, she works as a reporter for Informa Intelligence's Health, Beauty, and Wellness publication, a business newsletter detailing the latest innovations and regulations in the OTC drug and supplement worlds.
You May Also Like
APR 04, 2022
Cancer
Sweeteners Linked to Increased Cancer Risk
APR 04, 2022
Sweeteners Linked to Increased Cancer Risk
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends we limit sugar consumption to less than 10% of daily energy intake. ...
APR 20, 2022
Space & Astronomy
Neptune: Cooler Than We Thought, Temperature Wise
APR 20, 2022
Neptune: Cooler Than We Thought, Temperature Wise
We've always known Neptune was cool, but now we know it's way cooler, tempertaure wise. A recent study published ...
MAY 11, 2022
Space & Astronomy
Experience a Total Lunar Eclipse Over the Evening of Sunday, May 15th
MAY 11, 2022
Experience a Total Lunar Eclipse Over the Evening of Sunday, May 15th
For the first time in almost a full year, residents of Earth will be able to observe a total lunar eclipse – a per ...
MAY 23, 2022
Technology
Video games can help boost children's intelligence
MAY 23, 2022
Video games can help boost children's intelligence
Everyone loves and plays video games. Right from when we’re kids, we’re hooked on video games, and we play t ...
MAY 26, 2022
Technology
New Technology for Electronics Improves Cooling and Reduces Bulkiness
MAY 26, 2022
New Technology for Electronics Improves Cooling and Reduces Bulkiness
One of the biggest issues with electronics is the heat generated by the underlying devices. These devices need to be coo ...
MAY 27, 2022
Space & Astronomy
Astronomers Discover Over 700 Ultracool Dwarfs
MAY 27, 2022
Astronomers Discover Over 700 Ultracool Dwarfs
A new study in Astronomy & Astrophysics published the largest catalog of ultracool dwarfs to date. The team at the N ...
Loading Comments...