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Historically, scientists believed that there were only two catalysts available in the construction of molecules: metal and enzymes. That changed when German scientist Benjamin List and British-born David MacMillan discovered a third catalyst that could be used in pharmaceutical research and to make chemistry greener.


Asymmetric organocatalysis was called “an ingenious tool for building molecules” by the Nobel Committee for Chemistry in awarding the 2021 prize to List and MacMillan in Sweden.


“This new toolbox is used widely today, for example in drug discovery, and in fine chemicals production and is already benefiting humankind greatly” said Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the Committee.


Since the scientists discovered the third catalyst, independent of each other in the year 2000, it has been used to develop new pharmaceuticals and capture light in solar cells. Organic catalysts are made up of carbon atoms, which often contain common elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur or phosphorus. As a result, they are very environmentally friendly and inexpensive to produce.


"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," commented Johan Åqvist, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.


Benjamin List, who is based at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany and David W.C. MacMillan of Princeton University, USA, remain leaders in the field of organocatalysis since they showed how molecules can be built by using organic catalysts to drive multitudes of chemical reactions. As winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, they will receive 10 million Swedish kronor (£845,000), to be shared equally.

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