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UD Professor Emeritus Wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Richard F. Heck, the Willis F. Harrington Professor Emeritus at the University of Delaware, has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Heck, 79, was honored alongside fellUniversity of Delawareow researchers Akira Suzuki, 80, of Hokkaido Universi

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Richard F. Heck, the Willis F. Harrington Professor Emeritus at the University of Delaware, has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Heck, 79, was honored alongside fellow researchers Akira Suzuki, 80, of Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, and Ei-Ichi Negishi, 75, of Purdue University, “for palladium-catalyzed cross couplings in organic synthesis.” They will share a $1.5 million award.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences during a press conference held this morning in Stockholm. The Nobel laureates are scheduled to present their lectures Dec. 8, 2010.

According to the Nobel statement, the scientists were honored for discovering “more efficient ways of linking carbon atoms together to build the complex molecules that are improving our everyday lives.”

Speaking from the Philippines just an hour after learning of the award, Heck said that he was surprised, although not completely surprised, as their work had been suggested for the high honor. However, he said it is “a very nice conclusion.”

“The University of Delaware is exceptionally proud of Prof. Richard F. Heck and his ground-breaking research in the field of chemistry, which has resulted in the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this morning,” UD President Patrick Harker said.

"This is a tremendous accomplishment for Prof. Heck and his colleagues, acknowledging the development of a tremendously sophisticated tool that will aid scientists to make potential cancer drugs and medicines," UD Provost Tom Apple said.

Apple was a graduate student in chemistry when Heck was on the faculty at the University of Delaware. Heck retired in 1989 from the UD faculty.

Douglas Taber, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry who has known Heck as a colleague since 1982, explained the importance of his work, saying, "All of pharmaceutical chemistry and photolithography, the making of computer chips, depends on carbon bond formation. His [Heck's] contribution was to make that bond catalytic in the expensive metal, making large-scale industrial production affordable. When DNA sequencing became important, Heck chemistry made the coupling of organic dyes to the DNA bases possible."

This is the second Nobel Prize winner with ties to the University's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. The late Daniel Nathans, who graduated from UD in 1950 with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1978.

Nobel press release

The Nobel press release, headlined “Great art in a test tube,” reads:

Organic chemistry has developed into an art form where scientists produce marvelous chemical creations in their test tubes. Mankind benefits from this in the form of medicines, ever-more precise electronics and advanced technological materials. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2010 awards one of the most sophisticated tools available to chemists today.

This year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded to Richard F. Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki for the development of 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.

Carbon-based (organic) chemistry is the basis of life and is responsible for numerous fascinating natural phenomena: colour in flowers, snake poison and bacteria killing substances such as penicillin. Organic chemistry has allowed man to build on nature's chemistry; making use of carbon's ability to provide a stable skeleton for functional molecules. This has given mankind new medicines and revolutionary materials such as plastics.

In order to create these complex chemicals, chemists need to be able to join carbon atoms together. 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 therefore based upon various techniques for rendering carbon more reactive. Such methods worked when creating simple molecules, but when synthesizing more complex molecules chemists ended up with too many unwanted by-products in their test tubes.

Palladium-catalyzed cross coupling solved that problem and provided chemists with a more precise and efficient tool to work with. 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.

Palladium-catalyzed cross coupling is used in research worldwide, as well as in the commercial production of for example pharmaceuticals and molecules used in the electronics industry.

Biographical information

Heck was born in Springfield, Mass., on Aug. 15, 1931. He completed both his bachelor of science degree (1952) and his doctorate (1954) at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

After postdoctoral work, he took a position with Hercules in Wilmington, Del., in 1957. His remarkably productive research career at Hercules led to his move to the University of Delaware in 1971.

His contributions have previously been recognized by the Wallace H. Carothers Award, bestowed by the Delaware section of the American Chemical Society in 2005, and the American Chemical Society Award for Creative Research in Synthetic Methods, in 2006.