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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Nobel for Chemistry

New York Times:

Three scientists share this year's Nobel Prize Chemistry for developing a chemical reaction that swaps out pieces of molecules in a swing-your-partner-around square dance manner, it was announced today. The chemical reaction, developed over the last 35 years, enables a more efficient and more environmentally friendly way to manufacture of plastics, drugs and other materials. The winners are Yves Chauvin, 74, who retired a decade ago from the French Petroleum Institute in Rueil-Malmaison, France; Robert H. Grubbs, 63, a professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology; and Richard R. Schrock, 60, a professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Each will share one-third of the $1.3 million prize money that accompanies the award bestowed by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. 'This was a widely expected prize,' said Peter J. Stang, a professor of chemistry at the University of Utah and the editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. 'People knew this was an important reaction. It was very innovative. It was a new way of doing things.' Much of chemistry revolves around the manipulation of organic, or carbon-based, molecules. Such reactions, for example, turn petroleum into plastic. Traditional processes for producing plastic require high temperatures and immense pressure to break and re-form chemical bonds between the carbon atoms.
This is a well deserved prize. One thing that we sometimes forget about with all the more exciting advances in computers and genetics is how important materials science is. This also brings up an important point:
Metathesis reactions tend to be more efficient, requiring less energy and producing less waste. Thus, in addition to benefiting the environment, the processes also tend to be more profitable for chemical companies. The milder reaction conditions of metathesis also allow the manufacture of new materials not previously possible.
Environmentalism and Industrial efficiency can, and often do, go hand in hand. It is unfortunate that so many environmentalists are anti-technology when technology is the best hope for the triumph of their cause. The obvious trend is industrial processes that are both cleaner and cheaper. While regulation (and tax credits in some cases) can speed up this process it can, and often does, hurt it.


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