The two methods awarded the 1912 Nobel Prize in Chemistry changed the way in which chemists artificially created carbon-containing, or organic, compounds in the laboratory. Building such compounds is limited by the reactions that chemists have at their disposal to piece together or manipulate a series of carbon atoms to form more complex products. The key behind these two methods is that they call on a helping hand to link molecules that were impossible to bring together under regular conditions.
During a meticulous analysis of the way in which a set of chemicals interact with metals, Victor Grignard devised a new method for coupling together a carbon atom from one molecule onto a carbon atom from another. The key was to carry out a particular reaction he was investigating in two separate steps. In the first step, an organohalide compound, which contains a carbon atom attached to a halogen atom like chlorine, bromine or iodine, combines with magnesium in the presence of ether, and in the second step another carbon-containing compound is added to the mix. As it turns out, the intermediate compound that magnesium forms with the organohalide during the first step is extremely receptive to a large number of carbon compounds, attaching a carbon atom onto its own carbon and releasing magnesium in the process. With its wide application, this intermediate, which was named Grignard reagent after its discoverer, quickly became an indispensible means for chemists looking to stitch together smaller precursor molecules to create organic compounds.
Paul Sabatier's interest in catalytic reactions in organic chemistry led to him becoming the first chemist to detail the advantages of using nickel to drive reactions with organic compounds. He showed how hydrogen atoms can be linked with atoms in a range of carbon compounds by passing a mixture of both over finely powdered nickel at a high temperature. In this situation, nickel serves momentarily as a carrier for hydrogen, and enables it to be transferred onto a carbon atom. A simple, safe and convenient method, this hydrogenation reaction formed the basis of many laboratory reactions and important industrial processes, chief among them being the conversion of liquid oils into solid fats, the process behind the production of margarine.
This Speed Read is supported by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation Special Grant Program in the Chemical Sciences.