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 crucial 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. That work requires catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions without becoming part of the final product.
In 2000, Dr. List and Dr. MacMillan — working independently of each other — developed a new type of catalysis that reduced waste and allowed for novel ways to construct molecules. It is called asymmetric organocatalysis and builds upon small organic molecules.
Catalysis is what makes plastics possible; it also allows the manufacture of products such as food flavorings to target the taste buds and perfumes to tickle the nose. But until the discovery by the Nobel laureates, some of the catalysts used by chemists could be harmful to the environment or lead to vast amounts of waste.
The concept developed by Dr. List, a German chemist who is director at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research, and Dr. MacMillan, a Scottish chemist and a professor at Princeton University, offered a solution. The new process paved the way for creating molecules that can serve purposes as varied as making lightweight running shoes and inhibiting the progress of disease in the body.
“Why did no one come up with this simple, green and cheap concept for asymmetric catalysis earlier?” the Nobel committee wrote. “This question has many answers. One is that the simple ideas are often the most difficult to imagine.”