Nobel Prize for carbon-chemistry breakthrough

Yves Chauvin of France and Americans Robert H Grubbs and Richard R Schrock on Wednesday won the Nobel Prize for a breakthrough in carbon chemistry that opens the way to smarter drugs and environmentally friendlier plastics.

In its citation for the 2005 award for chemistry, the Nobel jury declared “fantastic opportunities” had resulted from the trio’s work, in pharmaceuticals and so-called green chemistry.

“Imagination will soon be the only limit” to what kind of molecules can be built in the future, the jury said.

The trio, who have a third of the prize each, broke new ground in a process called metathesis.

The term, whose meaning is “changing places,” entails using a catalyst to break the bonds of carbon-based molecules and rearrange them to form new compounds.

Carbon is the most versatile element in the world. Its combination with other elements, such as hydrogen, oxygen, chrlorine and sulphur, provides an astonishing array of materials, ranging from living tissue to drugs and plastics that we now take for granted.

Chauvin (74), of the French Institute for Petroleum, laid the theoretical groundwork for explaining how metathesis works by for the first time outlining how metal compounds act as bond-breaking catalysts.

Before Chauvin’s research, catalysts had been used to break carbon bonds, but their role and reaction had not been fully understood.

His findings laid the groundwork for California Institute of Technology chemistry professor Schrock’s quest for the metal that makes the most-effective catalyst.

In 1990, Schrock, now 63, reported the construction of a group of very effective molybdenum catalysts, revealing that the metathesis method could be used for general purposes in organic synthesis.

Schrock’s molybdenum catalysts later proved to have a downside, in that they were sensitive to oxygen and moisture.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemistry professor Grubbs two years later discovered a ruthenium catalyst that was stable in air and could even initiate metathesis in the presence of alcohol and water.

Grubbs, now 60, thus found the standard catalyst against which all new catalysts are measured.

“This year’s Nobel Prize laureates in chemistry have made metathesis into one of organic chemistry’s most important reactions,” the Nobel jury said on Wednesday.

Their findings “represent a great step forward for ‘green chemistry’, reducing potentially hazardous waste through smarter production”, it said.

Among the benefits are advanced herbicides, additives for polymers and fuels, and research into new treatment for bacterial infections, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, migraine and HIV.

“Metathesis is thus an important weapon in the hunt for new pharmaceuticals for treating many of the world’s major diseases,” the jury said.

The 2005 laureates will receive a gold medal and share a cheque for 10-million Swedish kronor ($1,3-million) at the formal prize ceremony held on December 10, the anniversary of the death in 1896 of the prize’s creator, Alfred Nobel.

Last year, Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko of Israel and Irwin Rose of the United States won the Nobel Chemistry Prize for showing how our body cells give certain proteins—the building blocks of all living things—a “kiss of death” by marking them for elimination.

On Monday, the Nobel Medicine Prize went to Australian research duo Barry J Marshall and J Robin Warren for their pioneering 1982 discovery that ulcers are caused by bacteria.

And on Tuesday, the Nobel Physics Prize went to Americans Roy J Glauber and John L Hall as well as German Theodor W Haensch for groundbreaking work on understanding light.

The prestigious Nobel Peace Prize will be announced in Oslo on Friday and the economics prize is scheduled for October 10.
The literature prize will most likely be awarded on October 13, but the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has yet to announce the date, which traditionally falls on a Thursday.—AFP

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