The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Benjamin List and David MacMillan “for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis.” The 10 million kronor (about $1.14 million) prize will be shared equally between the two.
“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 of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry in a statement.
Organic catalysts have a stable carbon framework, with active chemical groups often containing common elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, or phosphorus. These catalysts are more sustainable and environmentally friendly than metal catalysts. The use of catalysts contributes a huge amount to the global economy, so improving these methods is key to improving the world.
“[In] our early days, catalysts were in comparison to what we have [today] maybe a million times less efficient,” Laureate Benjamin List said during a press conference. “In my opinion, the real revolution of our discovery is only surfacing now with these extremely reactive organocatalysts that can do stuff that you cannot do with enzymes or even with the most sophisticated metal complexes that people have developed before.”
One of the most exciting things about the method is that it is asymmetric. Many molecules have a mirrored version, like our hands are mirror images of each other. One famous example of this is limonene. Depending on its “left-handed” or “right-handed” orientation, it gives either the smell of oranges or lemons – but structurally is the same molecule.
Living organisms have a preference for molecules orientation. For example, every living organism on Earth uses left-handed amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – and right-handed sugars. So, it is often preferable to produce molecules that respect that.
In many catalytic methods, you get as much of either orientation, but not with asymmetric organocatalysis. These allow for the preferential production of one type over the other. Beyond the world of new drug production, these methods have also been employed in the creation of new molecules that can capture light in solar panels.