(CNN) — The 2010 Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded Wednesday to three professors for a tool to make carbon-carbon bonds in organic chemistry, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced.
The professors are Richard Heck of the University of Delaware, Ei-Ichi Negishi of Purdue University and Akira Suzuki of Hokkaido University.
The tool the professors devised is called palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling.
“This chemical tool has vastly improved the possibilities for chemists to create sophisticated chemicals, for example carbon-based molecules as complex as those created by nature itself,” the committee said.
Negishi told reporters by phone from the United States that he was asleep when he heard the news an hour earlier. He said winning the prize was a dream of his, but he didn’t know whether he would win.
“I may have accomplished roughly half of my goal,” he said of winning the Nobel, “and definitely I would like to keep on working for several more years.”
The tool has applications in a wide range of fields, from agriculture and pharmaceuticals to coatings for electronic components, like chips, the Nobel committee said.
“The key word here is versatility,” Negishi said. “One of our dreams is to be able to synthesize any organic compounds of importance, whether it is medicinally important compounds … or important from the point of view of material science. And we believe that our technology or our chemistry will be applicable to a very wide range of compounds, without knowing what they might be.”
Carbon-based, or organic, chemistry is the “basis of life” and responsible for fascinating natural phenomena including color in flowers, snake poison and bacteria-killing substances like penicillin, the committee said.
Organic chemistry has allowed humans to build on nature’s chemistry and has given mankind new medicines and “revolutionary” materials like plastics, it said.
“In order to create these complex chemicals, chemists need to be able to join carbon atoms together,” the Nobel committee said. “However, carbon is stable and carbon atoms do not easily react with one another.”
The first methods used by chemists to bind carbon atoms together were based on various techniques for rendering carbon more reactive, the committee said. The methods worked to create simple molecules, but scientists ended up with too many “unwanted by-products” when synthesizing more complex molecules, they said.
“Palladium-catalyzed cross coupling solved that problem and provided chemists with a more precise and efficient tool to work with,” the committee said. “In the Heck reaction, Negishi reaction and Suzuki reaction, carbon atoms meet on a palladium atom, whereupon their proximity to one another kick-starts the chemical reaction.”