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The Nobel Prize in Chemistry awards the development of organocatalysis

List and MacMillan

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan, for the development of a precise new tool for molecular construction.

Organocatalysis has had a great impact on pharmaceutical research, and has also made chemistry greener.

A third type of catalysis

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 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,” says Johan Åqvist, who is chair of the 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 catalysts are both environmentally friendly and cheap to produce.

Developed at an astounding speed since 2000

The rapid expansion in the use of organic catalysts is primarily due to their ability to drive asymmetric catalysis. When molecules are being built, situations often occur where two different molecules can form, which – just like our hands – are each other’s mirror image. Chemists will often only want one of these, particularly when producing pharmaceuticals.

Organocatalysis has developed at an astounding speed since 2000. Benjamin List and David MacMillan remain leaders in the field, and have shown that organic catalysts can be used to drive multitudes of chemical reactions. Using these reactions, researchers can now more efficiently construct anything from new pharmaceuticals to molecules that can capture light in solar cells. In this way, organocatalysts are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind, states the jury.

Benjamin List

Benjamin List, born 1968 in Frankfurt, Germany. Ph.D. 1997 from Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany. Director of the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany.

David W.C. MacMillan

David W.C. MacMillan, born 1968 in Bellshill, UK. Ph.D. 1996 from University of California, Irvine, USA. Professor at Princeton University, USA.

Illustration of Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan: Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Prize Outreach