Will the Nobel Prize still have a Dutch touch in 2021? Yes, although you have to search a lot for it. Benjamin List, the new German laureate, said he was in Amsterdam, during a conference call, when he got a “famous phone call from Sweden” between the scientists.
He was there on vacation with his family. For the first time in years, I haven’t joked with my wife so I can call today. And suddenly it happened during breakfast.” “A wonderful experience that I will never forget in my life.”
That experience was not an option for him, American award-winning David Macmillan. The Nobel Committee did not have access to it beforehand – a rare occurrence. They left his voicemail and sent an email. “I hope he will contact us after the press conference,” the Nobel Committee said.
Speed up responses
List and Macmillan won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for their research on ways to speed up chemical reactions with small organic molecules called catalysts. This acceleration is necessary because many reactions are inherently very slow or inefficient.
According to the Nobel Committee, an estimated 35 percent of global GDP depends on chemical reactions involving catalysts. “Building molecules is a difficult art, and List and MacMillen developed a very ingenious tool for this,” the committee motivated its selection further. This technology is currently widely used in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, in particular, but also, for example, for the production of particles that capture light in solar cells. According to the commission, “in this way, organic catalysis, as this field is called, is of paramount importance to humanity.”
For a long time, chemists believed that catalysts came in only two flavors: enzymes, as you can find in the human body, or minerals, which are often expensive or contaminated. However, in 2000, the two chemists published in the same journal a method for speeding up reactions using much smaller organic catalysts, despite their unfamiliarity with each other.
What also makes List and MacMillan catalysts very useful is that they can distinguish between two opposite images of a molecule. “This is particularly important in the pharmaceutical industry,” says chemist Bert Wiekhuisen of Utrecht University.
Just as your left hand is different from your right hand in where your thumb is, while both hands have exactly the same parts, molecules with exactly the same building blocks can also be different. A tragic example from the world of soft-line pharmaceuticals. One mirror image was effective, while the other mirror image caused all kinds of distortions. “It is very important to produce the correct mirror images.” However, in most chemical reactions, both mirror images are formed in exactly the same quantities.
However, List and MacMillan catalysts produce only one of the two mirror images. Use them as aids during the interaction and you no longer have to fish the unwanted variant of the crop afterwards.
This, along with the other skills of the catalysts, ensures that chemical reactions run more efficiently. For example, the virus inhibitor oseltamivir, better known by the brand name Tamiflu, can now be manufactured in five steps. Without an organic catalyst, this reaction proceeds in twelve steps. In this way, catalysts make the reactions more sustainable, more efficient and therefore cheaper.
By the way, the idea for this type of organic catalyst did not come from the winners. “Articles on this topic were already published around 1920,” says chemist Henk Heemstra of the University of Amsterdam. In the Netherlands, chemist Hans Wijnberg, who died in 2011, promoter of Hiemstra (later Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa), for example, was a major driving force in the field.
Wijnberg has put several PhD students into the subject. I too have been working on it. But where we had 70 or 80 percent returns, List and MacMillan made big headway in 2000. They suddenly realized over 90 percent returns, Hemstra says.
Therefore, Wiekhuizen aptly describes the Nobel Prize. This field of research has really borne fruit over the past 20 years. List and Macmillan were in their infancy. That’s why List has known for years that he’s on the Nobel Prize lists, says Wiekhausen, who knows him as a colleague. “This award shouldn’t come as a surprise.”
980 thousand euros
After the award ceremony – which will follow in December – the winners will return home with a Medal of Honor and a cash prize of 10 million kronor (980,000 euros). List and MacMillan will each get half that amount.
Wednesday was the 113th time the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced, cut short by wars and the few times the committee failed to find a suitable winner.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry is the last of three traditional prizes in science. Tomorrow is the Nobel Prize for Literature, Friday for Peace, and Monday for Economics.
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