STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Three U.S. scientists won the Nobel chemistry prize on Wednesday for pioneering work on computer programs that simulate complex chemical processes and have revolutionised research in areas from drugs to solar energy.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, awarding the prize of 8 million crowns (783 thousand pounds) to Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel, said their work had effectively taken chemistry into cyberspace. Long gone were the days of modelling reactions using plastic balls and sticks.
“Today the computer is just as important a tool for chemists as the test tube,” the academy said in a statement. “Computer models mirroring real life have become crucial for most advances made in chemistry today.
“Chemical reactions occur at lightning speed; electrons jump between atomic nuclei, hidden from the prying eyes of scientists,” the academy added.
In drug design, for example, researchers can now use computers to calculate how an experimental medicine will react with a particular target protein in the body by working out the interplay of atoms. Today, all pharmaceutical companies have sections dedicated to predicting by computer modelling how a drug molecule will interact with the body.
But the approach also has applications in industrial processes, such as the design of solar cells or catalysts used in cars. For the former, programs can be used to mimic the process of photosynthesis by which green leaves absorb sunlight and produce oxygen.