OpenStax Chemistry 2e
The 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was shared by Paul J. Crutzen, Mario J. Molina, and F. Sherwood Rowland “for their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone.” Molina, a Mexican citizen, carried out the majority of his work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
In 1974, Molina and Rowland published a paper in the journal Nature detailing the threat of chlorofluorocarbon gases to the stability of the ozone layer in earth’s upper atmosphere. The ozone layer protects earth from solar radiation by absorbing ultraviolet light. As chemical reactions deplete the amount of ozone in the upper atmosphere, a measurable “hole” forms above Antarctica, and an increase in the amount of solar ultraviolet radiation— strongly linked to the prevalence of skin cancers—reaches earth’s surface. The work of Molina and Rowland was instrumental in the adoption of the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty signed in 1987 that successfully began phasing out production of chemicals linked to ozone destruction. Molina and Rowland demonstrated that chlorine atoms from human-made chemicals can catalyze ozone destruction in a process similar to that by which NO accelerates the depletion of ozone. Chlorine atoms are generated when chlorocarbons or chlorofluorocarbons—once widely used as refrigerants and propellants—are photochemically decomposed by ultraviolet light or react with hydroxyl radicals. A sample mechanism is shown here using methyl chloride:
Chlorine radicals break down ozone and are regenerated by the following catalytic cycle:
A single monatomic chlorine can break down thousands of ozone molecules. Luckily, the majority of atmospheric chlorine exists as the catalytically inactive forms Cl2 and ClONO2. Since receiving his portion of the Nobel Prize, Molina has continued his work in atmospheric chemistry at MIT.