Chemists Irina Beletskaya and Klaus Alexander Müllen to receive UNESCO-Russia Mendeleev International Prize in the Basic Sciences

Professors Irina Beletskaya (Russian Federation) and Klaus Alexander Müllen (Germany) will be awarded the UNESCO-Russia Mendeleev International Prize in the Basic Sciences at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow on 13 December.

Each laureate will receive a monetary award of US $250,000, along with a gold medal and diploma.

Professor Müllen is Emeritus Director at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany. His great curiosity has led him not only to cross disciplinary borders in his research but also to reach out beyond the scientific community in an attempt at convincing both the public and politicians of the importance of science for securing human wellbeing. His legendary lecture is entitled ‘Is the Future Black?’; it links technological challenges with the role of ‘black or transparent’ carbon materials and optimistically discusses how these could satisfy future societal needs.

This dual capacity to influence both science and society is what led the international jury to recognize Klaus Müllen not only for the lasting impact of his achievements in fundamental chemical and polymer materials sciences but also for his career-long efforts to promote international cooperation, science education and sustainable development.

‘Chemistry is the art of making molecules’, he says. These molecules then give rise to new materials, which are indispensable tools for meeting urgent societal needs for energy, health care, clean water and, more broadly, sustainability. A particularly important element of chemistry is carbon. All living matter contains carbon. Thanks to its unique binding properties, carbon gives rise to organic and bio-organic molecules and macromolecules. These occur in nature but can also be synthesized to target a wide range of desired properties.  A special case are so-called conjugated molecules which contain large domains of mobile, polarizable electrons. Such molecules can absorb or emit light and take up or transport additional charges. These are features which qualify them to be active components of optoelectronic devices. ‘My research group has made novel conjugated molecules by design and put them to work, for example, in integrated circuits’. In an especially exciting approach, scientists are interested in using the quantum properties of carbon-based matter to revolutionize the fields of computation, sensing and cryptography. ‘Here, my research group has introduced promising players such as carbon ‘honeycomb’ molecules which take on unprecedented ribbon shapes’.

How broad are the applications of his work? ‘The beauty of novel conjugated molecules,’ he says, ‘is that their slight structural modifications can furnish materials for other applications, such as for energy technologies; thus, incorporating any atom that is neither carbon nor hydrogen (known as heteroatoms) into layered carbon structures boosts the charge storage capacity of batteries’.

He gives another example. ‘Slight structural modifications can also be used in the biomedical field for the purposes of diagnosis and therapy; by decorating the surfaces of carbon nanoparticles (a process known as functionalization) with electrolyte (salt-like) groups, you can promote the uptake of DNA by the cell in gene therapy’, he concludes.

Like her co-laureate, Klaus Alexander Müllen, Irina Beletskaya regularly delivers lectures on most modern fields of chemistry. She also regularly gives talks and minicourses at schools.

She heads the Laboratory of Organoelement Chemistry at Moscow State University. Chemists refer to most of the molecules that contain one or more carbon atoms as being organic. Carbon-based molecules are more versatile than any other element in the Periodic Table, which is why they have their own field of study, organic chemistry. There are more types of carbon-based molecules than all of the non-carbon molecules put together. To be defined as organic, a molecule must contain not only carbon but also at least one other element, usually hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen or sulphur.

Professor Beletskaya’s biggest contribution to modern chemistry was arguably her 1995 discovery, along with Buchwald and Hartwig, of a novel method for synthesizing the bonding of carbon and nitrogen atoms. Carbon–nitrogen bonds are an extremely common ingredient of bioactive molecules and drugs, so this seminal work has made it much easier for synthetic and medicinal chemists to synthesise organic molecules possessing carbon–nitrogen bonds.

In the Periodic Table, the term ‘lanthanide element’ refers to a series of metals which are unique in terms of their size and magnetic and electronic properties, among other virtues, making them currently the best-suited metals for certain industrial applications. Professor Beletskaya was among the first chemists to demonstrate the great utility of rare earth elements in organic chemistry. She showed that some organolanthanides can serve as catalysts for important processes in the agrifood, petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries. For instance, organolanthanides can be used to prepare products that combine organics and silicon, such as adhesives, coatings and sealants, in a process known as hydrosilylation.

Irina Beletskaya is Editor-in Chief of the Russian Journal of Organic Chemistry. After serving as president of the Organic Division of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) from 1991 to 1993, she served on IUPAC’s Committee on Chemical Weapons Destruction Technology which lobbied for the destruction of chemical weapons worldwide.

Selected by an international jury

Professors Beletskaya and Müllen were selected by the Director-General of UNESCO for this second edition of the prize on the recommendation of an eminent international jury chaired by Professor Ana María Cetto Kramis, President of the Mexican Physical Society.

Irina Beletskaya has been ‘recognized for her fundamental scientific contributions to chemical sciences, her work in pioneering the development of novel organometallic reactions, the application of transition metal catalysts and metal nanoparticles in organic synthesis as well as her strong involvement in promoting science education, international cooperation and the development of a sustainable, green chemistry’.

Klaus Alexander Müllen has been ‘recognized for the lasting impact of his outstanding achievements in fundamental chemical and polymer material sciences, and his career-long efforts to promote international cooperation, science education and sustainable development’.

The prize is named after the father of the Periodic Table, the Russian chemist Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev (1834–1907), and financed by the Russian Federation. The prize was established in 2019 during the International Year of the Periodic Table for Chemical Elements (IYPT) proposed by the Russian Federation and led by UNESCO. The Year itself marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of Chemical Elements in 1869.