Since Derek Lowe and Chembark have their Nobel predictions for this year already up, I thought I would contribute with mine. I’ve been saying the following names for a few years now, and each year I’ve been wrong, although I would hope that they get rewarded for their efforts someday.
1. Carl Djerassi (for the development of norethindrone).
The sociological and political repercussions of this discovery are huge, and it can be claimed that the development of the first “female pill” enabled the rise of modern feminism today. Nonetheless, the chemistry involved is legit and is some very elegant synthetic work – these discoveries laid the foundation for modern steroid chemistry and a deeper understanding of biosynthetic and catabolic pathways. Even if Djerassi is getting old and has retired from chemistry to write plays, he still has a very real shot at the Nobel Prize in my opinion. Whether it will be the Nobel Prize in Chemistry or Peace remains to be seen.
2. Matyjaszewski and Rizzardo (developments in modern polymerization methods)
For those who practice polymer chemistry today, the name Krzysztof Matyjaszewski is uttered with the same reverence that I have when saying Kobe’s name. He developed a new polymerization method known as ATRP and has since made tremendous breakthroughs, including an intriguing electrochemical version. Living radical polymerizations have since become a staple polymerization method in both academia and industry, competing with the fabled Ziegler-Natta process. Rizzardo developed another living radical polymerization method known as RAFT. Both ATRP and RAFT are significant for their exquisite ability to control polydispersity/chain length and mild polymerization conditions.
Edit: I should mention that Matyjaszewski’s most highly cited paper is this review in Chemical Reviews from 2001, with approx. 3600 citations last time I checked!
3. Arduengo and Bertrand (isolation of stable carbenes)
The isolation of compounds with different valent forms of carbon has always been a major challenge in physical organic chemistry. The isolation of carbocations both as salts and in superacid matrices was solved by George Olah, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1994. The isolation of carbanions has not been approached to the same degree, but I’m sure anyone who manages to solve the structure of the “naked” t-butyl anion will also have a Nobel Prize with their name. The other remaining valency of carbon is that found in carbenes. Carbenes were known to be intermediates in a lot of reactions, such as the Simmons-smith cyclopropanation, and Breslow had proposed persistent thiazol-2-ylidenes as intermediates in reactions. However, nobody had been able to isolate carbenes to prove their existence, and it was thought that they were too reactive to be isolated, just like the general consensus on carbocations before Olah’s breakthrough in 1962. Guy Bertrand isolated the first stable persistent liquid carbene in 1988, and A. J. Arduengo (at DuPont), isolated the first stable, crystalline carbene in 1991. These discoveries have extended the knowledge of divalent carbon significantly, and this work is definetely Nobel Prize-worthy, in my opinion.