Thursday, October 7, 2010

Chemistry Nobel winner says his discovery now beyond him

WASHINGTON - US professor Richard Heck said Wednesday he was thrilled to receive the Nobel prize for chemistry but acknowledged the discovery he made was now well beyond him as companies and labs harness its uses, often in secret.

"I'm very pleased to receive the prize," Heck, an emeritus professor at the University of Delaware, told AFP when reached by telephone in the Philippines, where he said dozens of people had gathered to congratulate him.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobels, had called him there earlier Wednesday to inform him he had won the prize, and Heck said he was not entirely caught off guard.

"It's always been in the back of my mind," he said. "People have told me it was worthy of a Nobel prize, so I wasn't totally surprised, but yes I was very happy to get it."

Heck, 79, is among three professors sharing the 2010 Nobel prize for the development of a chemical reaction that bears his name -- a sophisticated tool that has helped revolutionize several industries.

"It turns out to be a fairly useful reaction," he said with soft-spoken understatement.

The so-called palladium-catalyzed cross coupling may be little known outside Heck's field. But with the palladium metal acting as a chemical matchmaker, that threw open the door for chemists in a range of experiments previously stymied by the difficulty of inducing carbon atoms to react with one another.

Because the discovery allowed more efficient ways of making complicated molecules and compounds, scientists now use it in a huge variety of fields, from cancer research and pharmaceuticals to the making of computer chips and screens and other electronics.

But Heck, who retired in 1989, said he hasn't kept abreast of just how his discovery was being used in 21st century medicine and industry.

"I really am not up on everything that is going on with this reaction," Heck said.

"It's a useful laboratory reaction, with major applications in industry. But much of that is secret, and that is because they want to keep their patents" closely guarded.

Heck shared the prize with Ei-ichi Negishi, 75, a professor at Purdue University who is credited with developing a reaction that has become known as the Negishi coupling, and Akira Suzuki, 80, a professor at Hokkaido University in Japan who is the namesake of the Suzuki reaction.

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