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The discovery has had a major impact in pharmaceutical research and also made chemistry greener.
The discovery has had a major impact in pharmaceutical research and also made chemistry greener.
Photo: Sergey Yarochkin (Mostphotos)

“An incredibly important and well-deserved prize”


The 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to two researchers who have discovered a new tool for building molecules. “My spontaneous reaction is that I am very happy and think that this is an incredibly important prize. I have worked in this field for 20 years and know how well this tool works,” says Henrik Sundén, a researcher in organic chemistry at the University of Gothenburg.

Researchers Benjamin List and David MacMillan have discovered small molecules that can be used as catalysts to make complex molecules, which was very difficult in the past.

A third type of catalyst

A catalyst participates in the reaction to speed it up without being consumed and without permanently altering the reaction. For a long time, scientists believed that there were only two types of catalysts for building complex organic molecules: metals and enzymes. But in 2000, Benjamin List and David MacMillan independently developed a third form of catalysis: asymmetric organocatalysis, which is based on small organic molecules.

“Organocatalysis is really useful for building complex molecules. What the future laureates discovered was that small, simple molecules, such as amino acids, were sufficient to catalyse the chemical reactions

Henrik Sundén
Henrik Sundén.
Photo: GU

needed when manufacturing medicines, for example,” says Henrik Sundén.

Environmentally friendly idea

The discovery has had a major impact in pharmaceutical research and made chemistry greener.

The American David MacMillan created the concept of organocatalysis.

“The definition states that there must be no metals in the reaction, and this ultimately means that the reaction becomes more environmentally friendly. In the past, this type of reaction used heavy metals, which are often expensive and problematic from an environmental perspective.

Many research areas and industries depend on the ability of chemists to construct molecules with a desired function, such as creating elastic molecules and durable materials, storing energy in batteries or slowing down disease processes in the body. This work requires catalysts.

“The discovery is important for the manufacture of medicines and research on new medicines, for example. But the tool has also been used in other material manufacturing.”

Since 2000, organocatalysis has developed rapidly. Benjamin List and David MacMillan are still leaders in the field. They have shown that organic catalysts can be used to drive many different chemical reactions.

“The Nobel Prize is the finest award you can receive in science. A recognition that what you have done is very important.  That is true for this year’s prize. In the perspective of previous laureates, these laureates are at the top of the class. I have read many of their articles inside and out and even know what years they were published.”

 Henrik Sundén, a senior lecturer in organic chemistry at the University of Gothenburg, has a doctorate in the field and is one of the most published researchers in Sweden on the subject.

Henrik Sundén: Telephone: +46 (0)708-92 46 71, email:

Photo: Sergey Yarochkin (Mostphotos)