David MacMillan, a professor at Princeton University, was awarded this Wednesday (6) with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 for his work in developing a new tool that revolutionized the synthesis of molecules, known as organocatalysis, a production methodology that even enables greener chemistry.
MacMillan was awarded together with Benjamin List, from the Max-Planck Institute, in Germany, who he also developed research related to organocatalysis.
From New Jersey, where he works and lives, the Scot with British-American nationality, granted an interview to the AFP a few hours after the announcement.
Why is organocatalysis so different and important compared to previous catalysts, such as metals and enzymes?
Chemical reactions produce everything around us: medicines, materials, etc. And these reactions often require “catalysis”.
To make the catalysis, the world used many things that were toxic or caused harm to the environment.
There is 23 years ago, we thought, “What would happen if you could use the same types of molecules you find in your body?” In other words, organic molecules because we know they are right in the environment and happy to be in our atmosphere.
Can you remember a specific eureka moment?
He was standing in front of a blackboard with a student, showing him a reaction. I suddenly had this idea of how we could take all of this in a very different way, using these organic molecules. This was the first eureka moment.
The second was when another student actually tried the reaction and it worked. It was a fantastic feeling, just as I feel now.
When we published it, it spread wildly and quickly entered the community. People started to adopt it very quickly, which was also very exciting.
Why were organic molecules disregarded as tools for building molecules in the past?
It’s a great question. I think it’s because when we first tried using metals, it worked. And like many things in life, when something works, we go in that direction.
The applications of your discovery abound, but are there any you’re most proud of?