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Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010
Chemical researchers shine
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Wednesday that the 2010 Nobel Prize in chemistry will go to three researchers — Mr. Richard Heck of the United States, and Mr. Ei-ichi Negishi and Mr. Akira Suzuki of Japan — for their work in developing the palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling reaction, which has become an efficient tool for producing large and complex organic molecules.
The news indicates the knowledge level and experience of Japan's chemical research. Hopefully it will inspire Japanese chemists and other scientists, encourage more young people to choose scientific research as a profession and prompt the government to improve the research environment for scientists.
Organic compounds in such forms as medicines (including cancer drugs), fibers, farm chemicals and light sources for diodes in computer use are highly useful.
The skeleton of an organic compound is a chain of carbon atoms. Since carbon atoms are stable, it is difficult to make them react with each other when one attempts to create a new organic compound. In the reaction cited by the Swedish academy, palladium serves as a catalyst and induces carbon atoms to couple with each other. Thus researchers can produce new organic compounds in large amounts with precision and without having to put up with unwanted byproducts.
Mr. Heck began using palladium as a catalyst. Mr. Negishi and Mr. Suzuki separately refined the method. It must be remembered that many other Japanese chemists contributed to developing the cross-coupling reaction.
With Mr. Negishi and Mr. Suzuki added, 15 Japanese scientists (one of them having become a U.S. citizen) have won the Nobel Prize; six are chemists who have been honored since 2000. Many of them received the prize for their achievements made from the 1960s to the '80s.
The science budget was not large in those years. But researchers were able to freely develop their scientific breakthroughs. The government should increase the science budget to strengthen basic science. It also should free researchers from bureaucratic desk work that hamper their research work. A free atmosphere in laboratories is crucial for developing new ideas in science.