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Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Winners & Contributions

Instructor: Korry Barnes

Korry has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and teaches college chemistry courses.

The focal point of this lesson is on the highest honor one can attain in chemistry, the Nobel Prize. We take a brief look at some of the more important recipients and discuss how their work has impacted the field of chemistry.

The Highest Honor

Have you ever heard of the Nobel Prize? Odds are you have, and you're probably aware that it's the most prestigious award you can receive, especially as a scientist. The award ceremony takes place annually in Stockholm, Sweden with awards given out in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. The nomination process is intense and very thorough. The winners are selected for their outstanding and exceptional contributions to their respective fields.

In this lesson, we focus on the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Our points of discussion are a few of the exceptional winners. We examine how their work has significantly impacted the field of chemistry and advanced their respective sub-disciplines. Let's meet some outstanding chemists!

Robert H. Grubbs

Robert Grubbs is an American chemist who currently works in academia at the California Institute of Technology. Grubbs shared the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry along with Richard Schrock and Yves Chauvin for their work on alkene metathesis reactions. The whole idea behind alkene metathesis is carbon-carbon bonds are broken, which can then themselves form new bonds in new ways to other molecules.

The significance of Grubbs' work has applications in the fields of pharmaceuticals, polymers, agriculture, and other materials like plastics. His research demonstrated that chemists can take simple organic molecules obtained from natural sources like petroleum and quickly make them into complex structures that can be used in a variety of applications.

Fraser Stoddart

Fraser Stoddart is a chemist who currently works at Northwestern University. He was born in Scotland but eventually immigrated over the the U.S. back in the 1970s. He won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2016 and is known for his pioneering work on organic systems known as catenanes, which are mechanically interlocked structures. His work showed that chemical architectures can act as molecular switches. They can operate in an on-off fashion based on the movement of different groups of atoms in a molecule.

A catenane is when two organic molecules are tethered to one another
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Stoddart also demonstrated that certain organic compounds can actually act as molecular machines and serve a specific function based on their chemical design. It was said of Stoddart by colleague David Leigh that, ''The credit for making molecular machines attractive to chemists goes to Fraser Stoddart, ... He had the vision to realise that these architectures gave you the possibility of large amplitude-controlled motions, and that that could be the basis of molecular machines.''

Akira Suzuki

Akira Suzuki is a Japanese chemist who received the 2010 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on what's known as the Suzuki reaction. The Suzuki reaction involves taking simple starting materials like aryl boronic acids (boronic acids bonded to a benzene ring) along with aryl halides (a benzene ring bonded to a halogen, like bromine for example) and connecting the two reactants together. The reaction happens in the presence of a palladium catalyst.

A Suzuki reaction that takes place between an aryl halide and an aryl boronic acid in the presence of a palladium catalyst. Note: X is any halogen atom
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Suzuki's work was extremely important because it demonstrated that chemists can take cheap, readily available building blocks and couple them together to rapidly generate molecular complexity. His methodology is used in the pharmaceutical, polymer, and materials industries and represents a powerful method to generate carbon-carbon bonds.

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