University Professor at Nagoya University, Department of Chemistry and Research Center for Materials Science and President of RIKEN, Japan
Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2001 (jointly with William S. Knowles, Ryoji Noyori, K. Barry Sharpless) “for their work on chirally catalysed hydrogenation reactions”
Ryoji Noyori was born in Kobe, Japan, in 1938. He became fascinated with chemistry at the age of twelve after hearing a public conference on the topic of nylon. He was impressed by the power of chemistry as having the ability to “produce high value from almost nothing”. His appetite for chemistry was further whetted though class work led by enthusiastic teachers in middle and high school and by his father, who was a gifted research director of a chemical company; his father’s profession strongly influenced Noyori’s life.
He studied at Kyoto University, initially intending to study polymer chemistry, but after three years he decided to focus on organic chemistry. He gained his BSc in 1961 and an MSc in 1963, whereupon he was appointed instructor and, four years later, received his doctorate (DEng).
In 1968 Nagoya University invited him to chair a new organic chemistry laboratory and, a year later he went to Harvard. He returned to Nagoya and became a full professor in 1972. Noyori has continued his chiral research at Nagoya, developing constant innovations in the area of asymmetric synthesis. Since 2003 he has been the president of RIKEN, a national flagship research institution. In 2000 Noyori received an honorary doctorate from the University of Rennes 1 where he taught in 1995, and in 2005, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Technical University of Munich and RWTH Aachen University, Germany.
Noyori believes strongly in the power of catalysis and green chemistry. In a recent article he argues for the pursuit of “practical elegance in synthesis” and states that “our ability to devise straightforward and practical chemical syntheses is indispensable to the survival of our species.” Elsewhere he has said that “Research is for nations and mankind, not for researchers themselves.”He encourages scientists to be politically active: "Researchers must spur public opinions and government policies toward constructing the sustainable society in the 21st century.”
In 2001 Noyori shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with William S. Knowles and K. Barry Sharpless. Noyori and Knowles received the prize for developing chiral hydrogenation catalysts. Chiral molecules occur in two mirror-image forms, but while one of these forms is a perfect match for the body, its ‘evil twin’ is often harmful, as was the case with thalidomide, a sedative intended to help pregnant women with morning sickness which caused severe deformation in their babies.
In 1968, Knowles discovered that it was possible to use transition metals to make a soluble hydrogenation catalyst to obtain the desired form. Noyori led the further development of the process, creating more general asymmetric hydrogenation catalysts in the 1980s and 90s. His catalysts produced larger proportions of the desired ‘twin’ and were suitable for industrial applications.
He is most famous for asymmetric hydrogenation using complexes of rhodium and ruthenium as catalysts, particularly those based on the BINAP ligand. Asymmetric hydrogenation of an alkene in the presence of ((S)-BINAP)Ru(OAc)2 is used for the commercial production of enantiomerically pure (97% ee) naproxen, used as an anti-inflammatory drug. The anti-bacterial agent levofloxacin is manufactured by asymmetric hydrogenation of ketones in the presence of a Ru(II) BINAP halide complex.
He has also worked on other asymmetric processes. Each year 3,000 tonnes (after new expansion) of menthol are produced (in 94% ee) by Takasago International Co., using Noyori’s method for the isomerisation of allylic amines.