Physical Science Blog

Nobel Prize in Chemistry Honors Carbon Coupling

Palladium acts as a molecular matchmaker for shy carbons

October 6, 2010

Last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to scientists’ work on the ribosome, the molecular machine that translates RNA into proteins, and the year before to work on green fluorescent protein, which lit up the field of cell biology (literally!) What gives, asked our bloggers; this stuff is biology, not chemistry!

Take heart, ye who quietly (and masochistically) enjoyed organic chemistry. The 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to discoveries firmly in the realm of chemistry proper. The work done by Richard Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki also shares a common link with the award given for physics yesterday: both involve the science of carbon, the central atom in all organic compounds.

The trio, who will share the $1.4 million award, independently made advances in using the metal palladium to connect one carbon atom to another (work they did way back in the 1960s and 70s). Palladium’s special properties help draw two carbons within kissing distance, where they can form a bond in a so-called ‘coupling’ reaction. While the physics Nobel was given for the discovery of graphene, a substance merely one carbon atom thick, the chemistry prize is all about building up: into drugs, plastics and other chemicals.

Each Nobel winner made an improvement on the coupling technique that led to new applications of carbon-based molecules. In fact, you’re probably looking at one right now: palladium coupling has been used to improve blue light in the organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) in your computer monitor. The reactions have also been used to recreate molecules previously found only in nature, like the potential cancer drug discodermolide.

There’s a lot to be said about the value of developing carbon-carbon bond technology, and the Nobel committee gets it. The chemistry prize has been given for advances in this field four times already (in 1912, 1950, 1979 and 2005), so Nobel predictors take note: in a decade or so, the carbon-carbon bond-builders are bound to grab another one.

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About the Author

Katie Palmer graduated from Williams College with a B.A. in chemistry and a concentration in neuroscience, though her classmates knew her best as “that cellist.” Guided by interests in cognitive science and neuroscience, she has probed rat brains for hints of anxiety traits and attempted to reconcile consciousness with the reality of the nervous system. Katie hopes to follow these topics and more in the process of bringing science to the public. You can follow her on her personal webpage or on Twitter.

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