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Nobel in chemistry goes to 2 scientists for finding ‘greener’ way to build molecules

Goran K Hansson, Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, centre, announces the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, in Stockholm, Sweden, October 6, 2021. (Claudio Bresciani/TT New Agency via AP)
Goran K Hansson, Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, centre, announces the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, in Stockholm, Sweden, October 6, 2021. (Claudio Bresciani/TT New Agency via AP)

STOCKHOLM — Two scientists win the Nobel Prize for chemistry for finding an “ingenious” and environmentally cleaner way to build molecules that can be used to make everything from medicines to food flavorings.

The work of Benjamin List of Germany and Scotland-born David W.C. MacMillan has allowed scientists to produce those molecules more cheaply, efficiently, safely — and with significantly less environmental impact.

“It’s already benefiting humankind greatly,” says Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the Nobel panel.

Making molecules — which requires linking individual atoms together in specific arrangement — is a difficult and slow task. Until beginning of the millennium, chemists had only two methods — or catalysts — to speed up the process.

That all changed in 2000, when List, of the Max Planck Institute, and MacMillan, of Princeton University, independently reported that small organic molecules can be used to do the same job as big enzymes and metal catalysts.

The new method, known as asymmetric organocatalysis, “is used widely today, for example, in drug discovery and in fine chemicals production,” says Wittung-Stafshede.

Johan Åqvist, chair of the Nobel panel, calls the new method as “simple as it is ingenious.”

“The fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” he adds.

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