Environmental issues are very popular these days, and with good reason. I've heard many ideas suggesting how we can improve our environment or at least minimize the damage we do to it, ranging from driving more fuel efficient cars to using solar and wind powered energy. An equally important, though less publicized frontier for improving the environment, is in the production of chemicals. The chemical processes that produce fuel, drugs, and plastics also produce toxic waste. One way to improve the environment is to substitute a different chemical reaction which would produce the same end substance, but without the dangerous byproducts. Unfortunately, such "green" alternate reactions do not exist for many current manufacturing process, but scientists are hard at work to change that reality. In 2005, MIT’s Richard Schrock won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing one such new reaction.
Schrock co-developed a reaction in organic chemistry called olefin metathesis, which is more environmentally friendly and efficient than alternative methods in the production of drugs, fuels, and plastics. This reaction is often compared to a dance, where pairs of molecules switch partners and bond with other molecules. You can watch an animation of the chemical reaction here: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/2005/animation.html. The dance analogy is so apt in describing Schrock's reaction that his Nobel Prize Diploma included a colorful painting of dancing people. You can view the diploma here: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/2005/schrock-diploma.html
Schrock's reaction has been adopted by companies such as Shell Chemicals in the petroleum industry and Materia in the pharmaceutical industry. Shell Chemicals uses olefin metathesis to create chemicals which it advertises as being useful for cooling, lubrication, detergent, and waterproofing. Materia sells chemical compounds created via olefin metathesis called “pharmaceutical building blocks,” which can be used to develop new drugs. Olefin metathesis also benefits the oleochemical industry, which produces the vegetable oils and fats used in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. It is remarkable what a far-reaching influence a single chemical reaction can have with regard to industrial efficiency and environmental improvement.
You can meet Richard Schrock on Friday, April 30 from 12 Noon – 1 pm at the MIT Museum, where he caps a week-long “Lunch with a Laureate” discussion series. You can ask him questions about his research, the award of the Nobel Prize or the multiple applications and implications of olefin metathesis. Even (especially!) if you missed the others, be sure to catch this last “Lunch with a Laureate” in the 2010 Cambridge Science Festival!