An explanation of the science behind the Nobel Prize

This year's Nobel Prize has seen the celebration of one of chemistry's most important reactions. Three scientists have between them developed a reaction which will provide incredible opportunities for the production of many new molecules with a huge variety of applications. 

The reaction itself is known as metathesis a word which simply means 'change places'. Organic substances contain carbon atoms which are held to other atoms by bonds. In metathesis double bonds between carbon atoms in organic substances are broken and made and subsequently atoms are moved to new positions within a molecule leading to the creation of a new organic substance. This movement is helped by a molecule which is known as a catalyst. 

Working separately the three Nobel Laureates, Yves Chauvin, Richard Schrock and Robert Grubbs have optimised the metatheses reaction over the years by developing cleaner, more efficient catalysts.  Together their work means that as well as being a way of producing new molecules, metathesis reactions are faster, produce less waste which in turn is excellent for the environment, and they also meant that these types of reactions are far simpler to carry out as extreme conditions such as high temperatures are not required. 

Yves Chauvin mechanism described below can be viewed as a dance in which the "catalyst pair" and the "organic molecule pair" dance round and change partners with one another. The metal and its partner hold hands with both hands and when they meet the "organic molecule pair",  the two pairs unite in a ring dance. After a while they let go of each other's hands, leave their old partners and dance on with their new ones. The new "catalyst pair" is now ready to catch another dancing "new organic pair" for a new ring dance or, in other words, to continue acting as a catalyst in metathesis.

Diagram of the Yves Chauvin mechanism

Diagram of the Yves Chauvin mechanism

The advances in this area have lead to the reaction becoming commonplace in the chemical industry especially in the development of pharmaceuticals and new plastic materials. Catalysts are constantly being developed which will allow the metathesis reaction to have a hand in solving more specific problems and enable new medicines and materials to be made.

Celebrating these advances is enhancing the fact that chemistry is working towards a cleaner, greener future. Reactions which are used daily in many industries are being developed not just with productivity, but with the environment and society in mind. 

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