Yves Chauvin of France and Americans Robert H Grubbs and Richard R Schrock won the award for developing the metathesis method, which makes it possible to cut the bonds of carbon-based molecules, enabling them to re-form to create new compounds.
The Nobel jury said the trio’s work has created “fantastic opportunities” for pharmaceuticals and so-called green chemistry, in its citation for the award.
“This year’s Nobel Prize laureates in chemistry have made metathesis into one of organic chemistry’s most important reactions,” the Nobel jury said.
“Metathesis is… an important weapon in the hunt for new pharmaceuticals for treating many of the world’s major diseases,” it said…
“Imagination will soon be the only limit” to what kind of molecules can be built in the future.
The three laureates expressed surprise they had won the prestigious award.
“Naturally I felt that it couldn’t possibly be true, but it is, so I was very, very excited … My heartbeat is about 200 per second,” said Professor Schrock, 60, speaking to Swedish public radio.
He said he expects the award to change his life.
Frenchman Mr Chauvin, 74, said the Americans deserve the credit.
“It’s a theme I worked on for 35 years. Now they tell me it’s interesting. That’s obvious for me,” he told AFP.
“I’m not going to jump up and down with joy.”
Mr Chauvin, of the French Institute for Petroleum, laid the theoretical groundwork for explaining how metathesis works by outlining how metal compounds act as bond-breaking catalysts.
Before his research, catalysts had been used to break carbon bonds, but their role and reaction had not been fully understood.
Professor Shrock continued the work by developing the first-ever efficient metal catalyst, based on molybdenum.
However its sensitivity to moisture and oxygen shortened the catalyst’s life.
In 1992 his findings were bettered by Professor Grubbs at the California Institute of Technology, with a ruthenium alternative that is stable in air and moisture, and today is the basis for many catalytic processes in science and industry.
The benefits of metathesis range from a large number of new forms of plastics capable of coping with high stress, exotic shapes and extreme temperatures, to better industrial coatings, fuel additives, insecticides, fertilisers and even synthetic pheromones to trap or repel insects.
The process has also made production leaner and greener, and is used in drug research, helping scientists who seek new molecules with which to attack the AIDS virus, bacteria, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other ailments.
The Nobel jury expressed excitement by the research.
“To date only a tiny fraction of the enormous diversity of organic molecules has been explored by synthetic chemists, yet it has already given us new pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, materials that we cannot live without,” it said.
“Further exploration of this diversity will result in even greater benefits to mankind — the potential is enormous.”
The laureates will receive a gold medal and share a cheque for A$1.7 million at the formal prize ceremony held on December 10, the anniversary of the death in 1896 of the prize’s creator Alfred Nobel.