Nobel Prize 2001

William S. Knowles, Ryoji Noyori, and K. Barry Sharpless


William S. Knowles

  • Born: 1 June 1917 in Taunton, MA, USA

  • Died: 13 June 2012 in Chesterfield, MO, USA

  • Attended Harvard, earned his PhD in 1942 at Columbia University

  • Field: Industrial chemistry, organic chemistry
  • Was retired at the time of the award
  • Interesting Fact: He looks like an older Lincoln Chafee.

Ryoji Noyori

  • Born: 3 September 1938 in Kobe, Japan

  • Earned his PhD in 1967 at Kyoto University

  • Field: Industrial chemistry, organic chemistry

  • Was Director of the Research Center for Materials Science at Nagoya University in Japan when awarded

  • Interesting Fact: His motivation to get into chemistry was to help post war Japan.

K. Barry Sharpless

  • K. Barry Sharpless

  • Born: 28 April 1941, Philadelphia, PA, USA

  • Field: industrial chemistry, organic chemistry

  • Was a professor at the Scripps Research Institute in California at the time of the award

  • Interesting Fact: Many scientists have said that Sharpless' discovery is the most important in the molecule creation field in the last few decades.


  • Knowles built upon the work of previous researchers, and created a process that produced 15% more of the desired molecule form.
  • This was done by using a transition metal with chiral properties (see visual) to give nonchiral molecule building material, chiral properties after reaction.
  • Noyori built upon Knowles' work, creating new catalysts (substances that increase the speed of a chemical reaction) such as BINAP by optimizing Knowles' creation as well as experimenting with new transition metals.
  • Some of his catalysts were able to produce 100% more of the desired molecule form.
  • Sharpless created chiral catalysts for a different type of reaction using transition metals such as titanium, allowing scientists to build more complex molecules that could do more.
Chiral molecules have two forms that are mirror images of each other just like our hands. When they attempt to bind to something else, only one molecule is able to fit perfectly (despite both being made of the exact same stuff).

For example, your left hand can't fit into a right hand glove and vise versa. In medicine, the other version of the molecule could cause unintended side effects, which is why the work of these men was so important.

Picture from:

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  • These men were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001 for their work on chirally catalyzed reactions.
  • Mirror reactions can produce two molecules made up of the same atoms but one of the two molecules can be harmful in some way or another
  • These three men discovered new catalyst driven reactions that created more of the desired molecule to be created.
  • This discovery advanced the medical field by allowing the creation of lots of any desired molecule.
  • Such processes were used to produce large amounts of antibiotics and other pharmaceutical products.
  • This did not challenge any previous discoveries but instead helped to build the knowledge of synthesization reactions.