An American and two Japanese scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for finding new ways to bond carbon atoms together, methods now widely used to make medicines and in agriculture and electronics.
Richard Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki were honored for their development in the 1960s and '70s of one of the most sophisticated tools available to chemists today, called palladium-catalyzed cross coupling.
It lets chemists join carbon atoms together, a key step in the process of building complex molecules. Their methods are now used worldwide in commercial production of pharmaceuticals, including potential cancer drugs, and molecules used in the electronics industry, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
The method invented by Heck is used in herbicide production, the academy said.
Heck, 79, is a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, now living in the Philippines. Negishi, 75, is a chemistry professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and 80-year-old Suzuki is a retired professor from Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.
Negishi told reporters in Stockholm by telephone from Indiana that he was excited to be awakened by a call early Wednesday from the Nobel committee, saying he started dreaming about winning the prize "half a century ago."
"The Nobel Prize became a realistic dream of mine when I was in my 20s," he said, adding he would use his third of the 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) award to continue doing research.
"I may have accomplished maybe half of my goals and I definitely would like to work for at least a couple of more years," Negishi said.
Heck, who has retired from active research, said the award would probably not spur any major change in his settled life in the Philippines, where he lives with his Filipino wife and tends to an orchid garden and pet birds.
"It's a nice thing to have but I don't think this is going to change my life. I'm too old," Heck told The Associated Press in an interview in his suburban Manila home.
Inspiration for youngsters
In a televised news conference from Hokkaido University, Suzuki said he was honored by the prize and hoped that it would inspire Japanese youngsters to explore chemistry.
"To my disappointment, not many young people seem to be interested in science, especially chemistry," said Suzuki. "A resource-poor country like Japan can only rely on people's endeavor and knowledge. I would like to continue my effort to provide help to younger people."
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he spoke to Suzuki on the phone and congratulated him.
"He told me that Japan's science and technology is at the world's top level and encouraged me to make good use of the resources," Kan said.
The techniques developed by the three scientists have been used to artificially produce cancer-killing substances first found in marine sponges, the academy said in its citation. It's not yet clear whether they will turn out to be useful drugs.
They are also being used to create new antibiotics that work on resistant bacteria and a number of commercially available drugs, including the anti-inflammatory naproxen, prize committee member Claes Gustafsson said.
"There have been calculations that no less than 25 percent of all chemical reactions in the pharmaceutical industry are actually based on these methods," Gustafsson said.
Thinner computer screens?
Palladium-catalyzed cross coupling is also used by the electronics industry in the coating of electronic circuits and as a tool to develop thinner computer screens in the future, said prize committee member Jan Erling Backvall.
The approach developed by the winners is widely used in research labs and in commercial production of substances like plastics, said Joseph Francisco, president of the American Chemical Society and a colleague of Negishi's in Purdue's chemistry department.
"It's truly quite fundamental work," he said.
By using the metal palladium as a catalyst to make carbon atoms bond to each other, the approach makes those bonds happen "very easily, very cleanly," he said. It requires fewer steps than previous methods and avoids having to clean up unwanted byproducts, he said.
Heck started experimenting with using palladium as a catalyst while working for an American chemical company in Delaware in the 1960s. In 1977 Negishi developed a variant of the method and two years later Suzuki developed another.
Heck was the only American among the Nobel science winners this year. There had been at least two U.S. scientists among the medicine, physics and chemistry laureates since 1991, when there was none.
The prize committees ignore the provision in Alfred Nobel's will that the awards honor discoveries made the preceding year because it takes time to measure the benefits. It's not uncommon for the prizes to reward research made decades ago, especially if its applications have increased with time.
"This is one of those cases. It's become used more and more," said Gustafsson, of the chemistry prize committee.
The academy said the chemistry award had a link to the research honored Tuesday by the Nobel Prize in physics, awarded to Russian-born Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for experiments with graphene, the thinnest and strongest material known to mankind.
"In spring 2010, scientists announced that they had attached palladium atoms to graphene, and the resulting solid material was used to carry out the Suzuki reaction in water," the citation said.
The 2010 Nobel Prize announcements began Monday with the medicine award going to 85-year-old British professor Robert Edwards for fertility research that led to the first test tube baby.
The literature prize will be announced on Thursday, followed by the peace prize on Friday and economics on Monday.
The awards were established by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel — the inventor of dynamite — and are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of his death in 1896.
Associated Press Writers Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm, Mari Yamaguchi and Jay Alabaster in Tokyo, Jim Gomez in Manila and Malcolm Ritter in New York contributed to this report.