Quirks & Quarks

New Nobel laureate in chemistry reflects on how his discovery catalyzed his field

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry went jointly to David MacMillan and Benjamin List, who developed an efficient, affordable way to create new molecules, which has been called a "game changer" for the field of chemistry.

"This was like my wildest dreams are coming true now," said Benjamin List after his prestigious win

Benjamin List was awarded The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 along with David MacMillan “for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis”, a technology that allows chemists to more efficiently construct new materials, like pharmaceuticals or plastics. (Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images)

This year's Nobel prize in Chemistry went jointly to David MacMillan and Benjamin List, who developed an efficient, affordable way to make new materials.

Many chemists work to create new, functional molecules. To build and shape them they use chemical tools called catalysts that facilitate chemical reactions. This creates brand new molecules with different — and hopefully useful — properties in the process, including everything from pharmaceuticals to the light-capturing materials in solar panels.  

"Catalysis as sort of a technology contributes to about roughly a third of the global domestic product," Benjamin List told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. "For example, fuel production or plastic, all these things are done on a gigaton scale. I mean, it's unbelievable. And you need catalysts for this. And that's why this is so important."

In the year 2000, MacMillan and List independently developed a whole new class of catalysts, made out of simple organic molecules. Their new chemical tools were easier to use, environmentally friendly, and cheap to produce.

Benjamin List celebrates with his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Germany after winning the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. (Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images)

"The new generation catalysts we have in my lab now, they are like maybe a billion times more reactive than the early day catalysts," said List. "I'm shocked what these catalysts can do. They do stuff that was impossible to do with enzymes before, or with the most sophisticated metal based catalysts that we have." 

List is a professor and director of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research. You can listen to his full conversation with Bob McDonald at the link above.


Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz

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