2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Making Chemistry Greener

Dr Azhaar Ashraf, UK

Discovery of an Ingenious Tool for Building Molecules that is making Chemistry Greener

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was jointly awarded to Benjamin List and David MacMillan for their discoveries of a precise new tool for the construction of molecules that can be bespoke and used in various applications.

Chemistry is a science that was the core of Alfred Nobel’s own work. His inventions and the industrial processes he employed required chemical knowledge. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alfred Nobel mentioned chemistry as the second prize area in his will.

The ability of chemists is essential for constructing molecules, which can form elastic and durable materials, and treatments to inhibit the progression of diseases. Catalysts are required for this process. Put simply, these are substances that control and speed up chemical reactions, without being consumed in the process. For example, our body consists of a plethora of catalysts in the form of enzymes, which chisel out molecules required for sustaining life. Another example would be catalysts in cars that convert toxic substances in exhaust fumes to harmless molecules, making our air safer and cleaner than it would otherwise be. Catalysts are a key tool in the armoury of chemists. Researchers held a long-standing belief that there were two types of catalysts: metals and enzymes. The Nobel Laureates Benjamin List and David MacMillan discovered independently of one another that a third type of catalyst exists (employing asymmetric organocatalysis) which are made of small organic molecules.

This concept of catalysis is simple, yet ingenious. The advantage of using organic catalysts is that they have a stable framework of carbon atoms, to which more active chemical groups can attach. These contain common elements including oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, or phosphorus. This very property allows these catalysts to be precise and can be produced in a cheap, fast, and environmentally friendly manner. The use of organic catalysts allows researchers to efficiently construct anything from new treatments for diseases to molecules that can capture light in solar cells. This ground-breaking work has the potential to unlock widespread opportunities and benefits for humankind.

About the Nobel Prize Laureates

Benjamin List was born in 1968 in Frankfurt, Germany. He received a PhD in 1997 from Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany. He became the director of the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany.

David W.C. MacMillan was born in 1968 in Bellshill, UK. He received a PhD in 1996 from the University of California, Irvine, USA. He is now a Professor at Princeton University, USA.

About the Author: Azhaar Ashraf received his PhD in neuroimaging from King’s College London. He is currently working as a medical writer. He also serves as the head of publication in Ahmadiyya Muslim Research Association UK (AMRA).

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