The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Wednesday awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Benjamin List and David W.C MacMillan "for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis," an "ingenious tool for building molecules" through organic catalysts. Princeton University, where the Scotland-born MacMillan teaches, posted a video of MacMillan and a colleague explaining catalysis after the prize was announced.
Before MacMillan and List independently came up with asymmetric organocatalysis in 2000, chemists believed there were just two types of catalysts, metals and enzymes, to speed up the process of building molecules, the Nobel committee said. This new, third type of catalysis, building upon cheap and environmentally friendly organic molecules, has allowed researchers to "construct anything from new pharmaceuticals to molecules that can capture light in solar cells. In this way, organocatalysts are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind."
Their discovery is "already benefiting humankind greatly," Nobel panelist Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede tells The Associated Press.
List, a 53-year-old German at the Max Planck Institute, said he was on vacation in Amsterdam when he got the "huge surprise" call, and he "absolutely didn't expect this." He added that he did not know at first that MacMillan was working on the same idea, and he thought his hunch could end up being a "stupid idea," until it worked.
"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," Johan Åqvist, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said in a statement. List and MacMillan will each get a gold Nobel medal and split the $1.14 million prize.