The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded on Wednesday to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan for their development of a new tool to build molecules, work that has spurred advances in pharmaceutical research and lessened the impact of chemistry on the environment.
Their work, while unseen by consumers, is an essential part in many leading industries and is vital for research.
Chemists are among those tasked with constructing molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the progression of diseases.
But that work requires catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions without becoming part of the final product.
“For example, catalysts in cars transform toxic substances in exhaust fumes to harmless molecules,” the Nobel committee said in a statement. “Our bodies also contain thousands of catalysts in the form of enzymes, which chisel out the molecules necessary for life.”
The problem was that there were just two types of catalysts available: metals and enzymes.
In 2000, Dr. List and Dr. MacMillan — working independently 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,” said Johan Aqvist, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
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On Monday, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for work that has led to the development of nonopioid painkillers.
The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded Tuesday to Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University, Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, and Giorgio Parisi of the Sapienza University of Rome. The committee said their work has been essential to understanding how Earth’s climate is changing and how human behavior is influencing those changes.