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More information on René Descartes

  Descartes prizes

Aims and Objectives of the Descartes Prizes

The Descartes Prizes are among the activities supported under the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme, within the Research Directorate Science and Society.

Science Communication Prize

  • Development of new asymmetric catalysts for chemical manufacturing

  • Handy chemicals?

    Strangely enough, many chemicals can be considered as having 'hands'. Some molecules of a chemical may have a left hand and others the right. What's more, just as human hands have different properties - try putting your right hand into a left glove - the two hands of a chemical also have different properties with different biological effects. For example, one hand of a pharmaceutical may have a beneficial effect, but the other no effect at all, or worse still it could have a harmful effect.

    Despite having different biological properties, the two hands of a chemical - like our own hands - share much in common. Press your hands together in prayer position and this similarity becomes clear… they are mirror images of each other. This similarity makes it very difficult for chemists to prepare just one hand of a chemical, but - again in view of the different biological properties of the two 'hands' - it is essential to do so. Traditionally, chemists have tackled this problem by preparing a 1:1 mixture of the two hands and then physically separated them. This is a tedious process and 50% of the chemical (the 'wrong hand') is discarded as waste.

    Industrial-strength catalysts

    Could a machine be designed to replace this labour-intensive, wasteful approach? Dr North and his team thought so. Their goal: to build a catalyst capable of taking simple chemicals and converting them into just one 'hand' of the desired product. But this was not as easy as it might sound. Previous attempts at building such a machine failed the rigorous industrial specifications requiring that the catalyst be reliable, easy to use, fast, highly selective and able to function at room temperature.

    With EU funding, the project assembled a network of chemists across Europe - in London, Oxford, Paris, Rostock, Moscow and Armenia - to develop industrial-strength catalysts. The success of the project is measured in the 50 new catalyst1 designs and 40 publications coming out of the consortium. The most successful design has been patented and is being licensed to Avecia, a major fine-chemicals manufacturer, which will market the 'single handed' chemicals prepared with this catalyst. These chemicals will be the starting materials for the synthesis of a wide range of pharmaceutical products that will contribute to keeping Europeans healthy in the 21st century. And the team creating such a fine legacy will be remembered at the very least as finalists in the Descartes Prize 2001.


    Dr Michael North (King's College London, UK)
    Development of new asymmetric catalysts for chemical manufacturing:
    (ZIP/MPEG, 1.5Mb)


Descartes Prizes:    2005  2004  2003  2002  2001  2000