Carbon-Bonding Tool Nabs Nobel Chemistry Prize

BY Jenny Marder  October 6, 2010 at 10:50 AM EDT

Updated 12:51 p.m. ET | Carbon took center stage again Wednesday as three pioneering chemists won the Nobel for their development of palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling, a form of carbon-carbon bonding.

The molecular tool, described by the committee as “great art in a test tube,” has transformed organic chemistry and paved the way for a whole class of sophisticated chemicals used in technology, farming and medicine.

Richard Heck, 79, of the University of Delaware, Ei-ichi Negishi, 75, of Purdue University and Akiria Suzuki, 80, of Hokkaido University in Japan will share the award. Watch the announcement here:

The technique bonds carbon atoms, which is necessary for the creation of complex chemicals, but difficult since carbon is inert. The three chemists found a way to stitch the atoms together by kick starting a chemical reaction, using the metal palladium as the key catalyst.

These types of reactions are ubiquitous in chemistry. They’ve enabled the flexibility and broader use of plastics and have been used in a range of medications including the anti-cancer drug Gleevec, the asthma drug Singulair and the painkiller naproxen.

“Making new chemical bonds is often a challenge, because of the constraints that Mother Nature puts on them,” said Joe Francisco, president of the American Chemical Society and a chemist at Purdue. “This is just a great illustration of what chemists do best: making new compounds and adding new reaction techniques to a toolbox that give chemists the capability to make new compounds to meet the demands and needs of people.”

Heck told the Associated Press that he didn’t realize the importance of the work at first. “It sort of grew as we worked on it,” he said. “As I worked on it longer it appeared it was pretty important, and it has developed well since then.”

Carbon-based chemistry is the basis of life, says the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and responsible for color in flowers, bacteria-killing substances like penicillin and snake poison. It’s uses include pesticides, flat screens and cancer-fighting drugs.

Earlier this week, the Nobel for physics was awarded to two Russian-born scientists. Their work isolated graphene, a form of carbon only one atom thick, but 100 times stronger than steel.