Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded to two scientists for their development of an ‘ingenious tool’ for building molecules

  • Benjamin List and David  MacMillan won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Chemistry
  • It was given for their work on research into the creation of new molecules
  • They will share the £841,000 ($1.14 million) prize money and gold medal award 

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 has been awarded to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan ‘for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis.’ 

List and MacMillan developed a new and ingenious tool for molecule building, that allows for research into new pharmaceuticals and helped make chemistry greener. 

The new technique has been used to improve solar panels, and speed up production of certain medications, including Tamiflu and anti-depressant Paxil.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the latest recipient on Wednesday from its stunning Session Hall in Stockholm at 10:55 BST (05:55 EDT).  

It is common for several scientists who work in related fields to share the prize, which includes £841,000 ($1.14 million) and a gold medal.

The winners were announced Wednesday by Goran Hansson, secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. 

List and MacMillan developed a new and ingenious tool for molecule building, that allows for research into new pharmaceuticals and helped make chemistry greener.


Chemists can create new molecules by linking together small chemical building blocks, but controlling invisible substances so they bond in the desired way is difficult. 

Benjamin List and David MacMillan developed a new and ingenious tool for molecule building: organocatalysis.

Its uses include research into new pharmaceuticals and it has also helped make chemistry greener.  

During chemical construction a situation often arises in which two molecules can form, which are each other’s mirror image. 

Chemists often just want one of these images, particularly when producing pharmaceuticals.

But it has been difficult to find efficient methods for doing this, and either removing one or creating one.

The concept developed by List and MacMillan – asymmetric organocatalysis – using small organic molecules as a catalyst.

It removes the mirrored nature, producing the desired molecule.

Using organocatalysis, researchers can now make large volumes of different asymmetric molecules relatively simply. 

For example, they can artificially produce potentially curative substances that can otherwise only be isolated in small amounts from rare plants or deep-sea organisms. 

At pharmaceutical companies, the method is also used to streamline the production of existing pharmaceuticals. 

Examples of this include paroxetine, which is used to treat anxiety and depression, and the antiviral medication oseltamivir (Tamiflu), used to treat respiratory infections. 

Many research areas and industries depend on a chemist being able to construct molecules that can form ‘elastic and durable materials’.

Molecule construction has allowed us to store energy in batteries and inhibit the progression of a range of diseases. 

 This work requires catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions, without becoming part of the final product. 

They are fundamental tools for chemists, but researchers long believed that there were, in principle, just two types of catalysts available: metals and enzymes.

This is where the Nobel Prize for Chemistry laureates, Benjamin List and David MacMillan, came in. They produced a third catalysis, independently of each other.

It is called asymmetric organocatalysis and builds upon small organic molecules.

‘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,’ says Johan Åqvist, who is chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

Organic catalysts have a stable framework of carbon atoms, to which more active chemical groups can attach, often containing oxygen, nitrogen, and sulphur. 

This means these catalysts are both environmentally friendly and cheap to produce. 

Organocatalysis has developed at an astounding speed since 2000 when List and MacMillan made the remarkable discovery – and both are leaders in the field.

Organic catalysts can be used to drive multitudes of chemical reactions and using these reactions, researchers can now more efficiently construct anything from new pharmaceuticals to molecules that can capture light in solar cells. 

Last year’s chemistry laureates Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna shared the prize for discovering one of gene technology’s sharpest tools.

They found and developed the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, that allow for genetic modification and gene therapies to treat a range of conditions.

Previous recipients of the chemistry Nobel prize include Marie Skłodowska Curie, who was awarded the prize in 1911 Nobel Prize, becoming the first person ever to receive two Nobel Prizes – her first was for physics in 1903.  

The prize money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895. 

Nobel made the bequest after reading a premature obituary that called him out for his work in the sale of arms through his company Bofors, which was built off the back of his many patents, including for dynamite.  

The 2021 Nobel Prize for physics was awarded on Tuesday to three scientists working on models to predict global warming and the interplay of planetary systems.

One half of the highly-coveted prize was split between Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann for their work in the ‘physical modelling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming.’

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the latest recipient on Wednesday from its stunning Session Hall in Stockholm at 10:55 BST (05:55 EDT)

The other half went to Giorgio Parisi for the ‘discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales’.

On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize in physiology or medicine to Americans David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian.    

Julius and Patapoutian shared the coveted award for identifying how the body converts physical sensations into electrical signals in the nervous system. 

The duo were credited with ‘unlocking one of the secrets of nature’ by the Nobel Committee.  

The pandemic continues to haunt the Nobel ceremonies, which are usually full of old-world pomp and glamour. 

The banquet in Stockholm has been postponed for a second successive year amid lingering worries about the virus and international travel. 

Over the coming days prizes will also be awarded for outstanding work in the fields of literature, peace and economics. 

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