Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Valuing Nobel Prize Winning Chemistry

Late last week I ran across the Elevance company website. The company makes biobased chemicals from various oils for a wide range of uses. As most of these oils are not saturated, they are using Grubb's catalysts to aid in the metathesis reactions - reactions that more or less move double and triple C-C bonds around. But what caught my eye was this headline: "Using Nobel Prize-winning technology to develop products on a commercial scale, for domestic and international growth opportunities". (Grubbs' catalysts won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.)

At first I was scowling, but I've gradually warmed up to the idea of advertising using the phrase "Nobel Prize-winning technology".

As far as the public is concerned, the Nobel Prizes are announced in early October, including the one for chemistry, and the announcements include the usual, obligatory hype about what the discoveries have or could be used for. But these announcements are all so vague. Does the public ever make the connection that something that they interact with is actually Nobel Prize winning material? As chemists in constant need for improving the public's image of our profession and our industry, we should talk about that link wherever and whenever it occurs. The Nobel Prize isn't something that is won and put on a shelf - the discoveries have improved lives of people around the world, but yet few in the public make that connection.

Maybe part of our problem is that we focus too much on the latest Prize - who won last year. We're human and love the latest and greatest discoveries; prizes from 20 years ago are now in textboos. Yet in many cases, the recent winners' discoveries are often too new to have been commercialized. Look at the 2000 Prize given to Heeger, MacDiarmid and Shirwakawa for the discovery of inherently conductive polymers. There is tremendous future potential for these novel materials, but the consumer applications are still extremely limited if non-existent, even after 13 years. But when the these polymers do start appearing in the iPhone 7 or the whatever innovative consumer product takes the world by storm, there should be a loud and constant recognition that this phone was made possible by Nobel Prize-winning technology in Chemistry.

Leaving aside chemistry in general and focusing on just polymers, almost every piece of polyethylene and polypropylene produced around the world is the results of Nobel-Prize winning technology - Ziegler-Natta catalysts (awarded in 1963), and derivatives thereof. Would the public view "cheap, junky plastics" any differently if we started telling them that there is Nobel Prize-winning technology associated with it? How about we start telling them so? "Cheap, junky plastic?" I don't think so. It's the stuff of Nobel Prize dreams.

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