Chauvin is best known for his work on the mechanism of olefin metathesis—a reaction in which two carbon-carbon double bonds swap bonding partners to form two new carbon-carbon double bonds.
Although the reaction had been known since the 1950s, it wasn’t until 1971 that a convincing mechanism was proposed.
That’s when Chauvin and Jean-Louis Hérisson, working at the French Petroleum Institute, suggested that a metal carbene initiates the reaction. The carbene reacts with an olefin to form a new olefin and a new metal carbene, thereby propagating the reaction, they hypothesized (Makromol. Chem. 1971, DOI: 10.1002/macp.1971.021410112).
The proposition led other chemists to refine the mechanism and make the reaction more practical. Robert H. Grubbs and Richard R. Schrock, who shared the Nobel Prize with Chauvin, led efforts to develop the catalysts that make olefin metathesis a reaction that is widely used to prepare complex molecules and polymers.
“Like all sciences, chemistry is marked by magic moments,” Chauvin noted in his Nobel Prize lecture. “For someone fortunate enough to live such a moment, it is an instant of intense emotion: an immense field of investigation suddenly opens up before you.”