The Nobel Prizes are being awarded this week, and today's announcement of the Chemistry prize has a definite worldchanging aspect. The winners, Americans Robert H. Grubbs and Richard R. Schrock and Yves Chauvin of France, won for research that allows the production of pharmaceuticals and industrial plastics with far greater efficiency and far less resulting toxic waste.
The environment aspect was foremost on the minds of the Nobel committee in awarding this prize: "This represents a great step forward for 'green chemistry', reducing potentially hazardous waste through smarter production. Metathesis is an example of how important basic science has been applied for the benefit of man, society and the environment," the committee said.
As always, the prize honors work that was done some time ago, and has been proven to be useful and transformative. The original research, by Dr. Chauvin, was published in 1971; Grubbs and Schrock each managed to turn the research into useful material processes in the early 1990s.
While I don't think anyone would say that the principles of 'green chemistry' were what initially drove any of this research, the current state of these catalysts is quite promising in these respects. And, while most polymers made through metathesis currently rely on hydrocarbon feedstocks, some current projects are beginning to involve the manufacture of smaller molecules from unsaturated natural fatty acids and other renewable materials w/ appropriate double bonds.
The prizes have a definite Nobel Prize aspect to them.