Two Americans and one French researcher were named as recipients of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry today for their roles in devising a novel series of catalysts that act like molecular dance instructors, rearranging dance partners to make novel pairings. Such rearrangements are now a staple of organic chemists in both academia and industry for the production of everything from pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals to pheromones and polymers.
Chemist Yves Chauvin of the French Oil Institute in Rueil-Malmaison will receive one-third of the $1.3 million prize for working out the details of the "metathesis" reaction, whereby a metal catalyst causes carbon-containing molecules to break bonds and change partners. In the 1950s, chemists at DuPont found that when they added metals such as molybdenum to organic compounds such as ethylene and propene, it caused the reactants to change shape. But just how this happened remained more alchemy than science, and a worldwide race ensued to solve the mystery. Chauvin cracked the case in 1971, and his mechanism revealed that the metathesis reaction had the potential to be used for a wide range of reactions, such as turning linear compounds into rings, stitching linear chains together, and breaking rings open. At the time however, the known catalysts were inefficient and fell apart when exposed to air or moisture.
Richard Schrock, a chemist now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and colleagues changed that picture in the early 1970s when they came up with a series of molybdenum-, tungsten-, and tantalum-based catalysts that were highly active and efficient. Still, those catalysts were not stable in air or around moisture because the metals at their core were so hungry for electrons that they readily reacted with oxygen or water, causing them to fall apart.
Robert Grubbs, a chemist now at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and colleagues solved this problem by replacing molybdenum with ruthenium, a less electron-hungry transition metal. The catalysts made by Grubbs typically don't work quite as fast as the molybdenum-based compounds, but they are stable in air, water, and a wide variety of other compounds, which has made them widely useful. Schrock and Grubbs will share the Nobel with Chauvin.
The award is "a clear example of how basic research on fundamental questions can have a broad impact on all sorts of areas," says Jeremy Berg, a chemist who directs the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. "This was a widely expected prize, and well deserved," says Peter Stang, a chemist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. "The Nobel committee picked the right people," he says.