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Online ISSN: 1439-7641
October 06, 2010
2010 Chemistry Nobel Prize for Molecule-Building Work
The 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded to the "molecule makers" Richard Heck (USA), Ei-ichi Negishi (Japan) and Akira Suzuki (Japan) for developing a new way of linking carbon atoms together. The technique –called palladium-catalyzed cross coupling– has greatly improved the possibilities for scientists to create complex chemicals and has allowed them to make new medicines, precise electronics and advanced materials. This year's Laureates developed the sophisticated "chemical tool", which consists of a family of reactions involving the metal palladium, more than thirty years ago.
According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, palladium-catalyzed cross coupling is a "precise and efficient" method that is used by researchers worldwide, "as well as in the commercial production of for example pharmaceuticals and molecules used in the electronics industry". Thanks to the reactions developed by Heck, Negishi and Suzuki it is now possible to produce carbon-based molecules as complex as those created by nature itself. Among others the technique has been used to artificially produce a potent inhibitor of tumor-cell growth called discodermolide which was first found in small quantities in marine sponges. The synthesized substance is currently being tested as a potential anticancer drug. New antibiotics that work against resistant bacteria as well as a number of commercially available drugs, such as the anti-inflammatory naproxen or the anti-asthma montelukast, have also been synthesized in this way. Palladium-catalyzed cross coupling has also been used by the electronics industry to make light-emitting diodes used in the production of extremely thin monitors.
Joining carbon atoms together is a key step in the process of building complex molecules, but this is not a simple task because carbon atoms do not easily react with one another. The first methods used to achieve this were based on making carbon more reactive. This worked well for synthesising simple molecules, but when chemists tried to scale this up to more complex ones, too many unwanted by-products were generated. Palladium-catalyzed cross coupling solved that problem: By using the metal palladium as a catalyst in the Heck, Negishi and Suzuki reactions, the carbon atoms could be bound to each other more easily and cleanly. The metal served both to hold the reacting carbon atoms together in the proper orientation in order to obtain the desired products and to push the reaction gently to completion. Heck started experimenting with using palladium as a catalyst while working for an American chemical company in Delaware in the 1960s. In the 1970s, Negishi and Suzuki developed variants of the reaction that made it more versatile.
Figure: Nobel Medal (©® The Nobel Foundation).