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Nobel in chemistry honors ‘greener’ way to build molecules

by Mary Sewell

STOCKHOLM — Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for finding an ingenious and environmentally cleaner way to build molecules — an approach now used to make a variety of compounds, including medicines and pesticides. The work of Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan has allowed scientists to produce those molecules more cheaply, efficiently, safely, and with significantly less hazardous waste. “It’s already benefiting humankind greatly,” said Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the Nobel panel.

It was the second day in a row that a Nobel-rewarded work had environmental implications. The physics prize honored developments that expanded our understanding of climate change just weeks before global climate negotiations in Scotland started. The chemistry prize focused on the making of molecules. That requires linking atoms in specific arrangements and is often slow and challenging.

Until the beginning of the millennium, chemists had only two methods — or catalysts — to speed up the process, using either complicated enzymes or metal catalysts. That all changed when List of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and MacMillan, of Princeton University in New Jersey independently reported that small organic molecules could be used to do the job. The new tools have been necessary for developing medicines and minimizing drug manufacturing glitches, including problems that can cause harmful side effects.


Johan Åqvist, chair of the Nobel panel, called the method “simple as it is ingenious.” “The fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” he added. MacMillan said winning the prize left him “stunned, shocked, happy, very proud.” “I grew up in Scotland, a working-class kid. My dad’s a steelworker. My mom was a home help. … I was lucky enough to get a chance to come to America to do my Ph.D.,” he said. He told a news conference in Princeton he was planning to follow his older brother into physics.

Still, the physics classes in college were at 8 a.m. in a cold and leaky classroom in rainy Scotland, while the chemistry courses were two hours later in warmer, drier spaces. He said he could hear his wife pleading with him not to share it as he told that story. He said the inspiration for his Nobel-winning work came when thinking about the dirty process of making chemicals — one that requires precautions he likened to those taken at nuclear power plants. He reasoned that if he could devise a way of making medicines faster by entirely different means that didn’t require vats of metal catalysts, the process would be safer for both workers and the planet.

List said he did not initially know MacMillan was working on the same subject and figured his hunch might be a “stupid idea” — until it worked. At that eureka moment, “I did feel that this could be something big,” the 53-year-old said. H.N. Cheng, president of the American Chemical Society, said the laureates developed “new magic wands.” Before their work, “the standard catalysts frequently used were metals, which frequently have environmental downsides,” Cheng said. “They accumulate, they leach, they may be hazardous.”

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