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Researchers from Germany and US receive Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021

The Nobel Prize for 2021 was awarded jointly to Benjamin List and David WC MacMillan for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis

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The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 to Benjamin List, Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany and David WC MacMillan, Princeton University, the US, for developing asymmetric organocatalysis.

Building molecules is a difficult art. Organocatalysis has had a great impact on pharmaceutical research, and has made chemistry greener.

Many research areas and industries are dependent on chemists’ ability to construct molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the progression of diseases. This 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. Our bodies also contain thousands of catalysts in the form of enzymes, which chisel out the molecules necessary for life.

Catalysts are thus fundamental tools for chemists, but researchers long believed that there were, in principle, just two types of catalysts available: metals and enzymes. Benjamin List and David MacMillan are awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 because in 2000, they, independent 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 Åqvist, Chair, 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, sulphur or phosphorus. This means that these ca