Mario Molina Wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry
By Shang-Lin Chuang
Professor of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences Mario J. Molina will share this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in atmospheric chemistry concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone.
The Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden awarded the million-dollar prize on Wednesday morning to Molina, F. Sherwood Rowland of the University of California at Irvine, and Paul Crutzen, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.
Ordinary activities deplete ozone
Molina, Rowland, and Crutzen showed that the use of common items like spray cans and air conditioners can harm the fragile ozone layer that protects the world from the dangerous ultra-violet radiation of the sun.
This is the first time that the Swedish Academy has awarded a Nobel Prize for research into the impact of man-made objects on the environment. The discoveries led to an international environmental treaty, which, by the end of this year, bans the production of industrial chemicals that reduce the ozone layer.
"It's very rewarding to see how one can simultaneously try to work with problems that affect society in a very direct way," Molina said.
Molina, Crutzen, and Rowland "have all made pioneering contributions to explaining how ozone is formed and decomposes through chemical processes in the atmosphere," according to the Nobel citation.
They "showed how sensitive the ozone layer is to the influence of anthropogenic emissions of certain compounds. By explaining the chemical mechanisms that affect the thickness of the ozone layer, the three researchers have contributed to our salvation from a global environmental problem that could have catastrophic consequences."
Molina said that "it does feel like a vindication" for his work to have influenced the ban on ozone-depleting chemical compounds.
Academy calls with news
The news of winning the Nobel Prize was a very pleasant surprise, Molina said. He received a call from Sweden soon after he got to his office "on a normal day of teaching."
A scientist needs to work hard and have much patience when dealing with environmental programs, Molina said. Molina said that he attributes his childhood fascination with science and scientific research as a significant factor to his current work.
"I am very happy to be able to celebrate this honor with colleagues here at MIT. I am thankful for all the support from the colleagues and students here," Molina said.
"We are extremely pleased that such a productive and respected member of the MIT community has won the Nobel Prize in chemistry," said President Charles M. Vest. "This award emphasizes that the most fundamental scientific inquiry can turn out to have extremely important ramifications for our world."
MIT's Nobel laureates include 12 current and emeritus MIT faculty members, a physician, four former faculty members, and 11 alumni.
Research leads to controversy
In 1974, Molina and Rowland published their research on the threat to the ozone layer from chlorofluorocarbon gases or freons that were being used as propellants in spray cans, as the cooling medium for refrigerators and air conditioners, and in plastic foams.
Molina and Rowland's prediction of that the chemicals would significantly deplete the ozone layer in the coming decades garnered much negative attention at the time from industry. The work is still criticized by some, most recently by two Congressmen last month who are seeking to postpone the implementation of a ban on the chemicals.
Molina's research predicting an ozone hole laid the groundwork for the discovery of one in 1985 over the South Pole.
"It's important to realize that Mario's work didn't stop with his landmark hypothesis," said Professor of EAPSThomas H. Jordan, head of the department. "With the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole, he began a second phase of major contributions in this area."
Molina's latest research includes work on the interface of the atmosphere and biosphere, which is critical to understanding global climate-change processes.
In 1994, Molina was named by President Clinton to serve on the18- member President's Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology. The PCAST advises the President on issues involving science and technology in achieving national goals and assists the cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council in securing private-sector participation in its activities.
Molina was born in Mexico City. He came to MIT in 1989 after holding teaching and research positions at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, the University of California, Berkeley, UC Irvine, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.