Richard Heck, a retired University of Delaware chemist, among Nobel Prize winners
Richard Heck worked in the 1960s to find a new way to bond carbon atoms. Now, some two decades after he retired, he has been honored with a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Newark, Del. — Retired University of Delaware chemist Richard F. Heck and two Japanese scientists won the 2010 Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday for finding new ways to bond carbon atoms together, methods now widely used to make medicines and in agriculture and electronics.
Heck, along with Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki, were honored for their development four decades ago of one of the most sophisticated tools available to chemists today, called palladium-catalyzed cross coupling. Their work lets chemists join carbon atoms together, a key step in the process of building complex molecules.
Heck, 79, who retired and moved to the Philippines with his Filipino wife, said from his home there that he was glad to have won.
"I published this work in the early days, it just took a while for it to get appreciated," Heck said.
Heck started experimenting with using palladium as a catalyst while working for an American chemical company in Delaware in the 1960s. In 1977, Negishi developed a variant of the method and two years later Suzuki developed a third.
The methods developed by the three scientists have been used to artificially produce cancer-killing substances first found in marine sponges, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its citation. It's not yet clear whether they will turn out to be useful drugs.
They are also being used to create new antibiotics that work on resistant bacteria and a number of commercially available drugs, prize committee member Claes Gustafsson said.
The method invented by Heck is used in herbicide production, the academy said.
"It sort of grew as we worked on it," he told The Associated Press. "As I worked on it longer it appeared it was pretty important and it has developed well since then."
Another prize committee member said their work is being used to develop thinner computer screens.
Heck said he plans to travel to Stockholm to accept the award in December.
Heck, who has retired from active research, said the award would probably not spur any major change in his settled life in the Philippines, where he tends to an orchid garden and pet birds.
"It's a nice thing to have but I don't think this is going to change my life. I'm too old," Heck said.
University of Delaware President Patrick Harker said in a statement that the school was proud of Heck and his groundbreaking research.
The university began a lecture series six years ago in honor of Heck's contributions to the field of chemistry. Heck retired in 1989.
Associated Press Writer Kathleen Miller in Washington contributed to this report.