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The Future of Chemistry

Judging from the scant attention chemistry covered in the public media, it often evokes a perception that the time has passed for this branch of science. There is not much challenge left to attract bright young scientists into this field. Many chemistry departments are either closed or absorbed into other departments and renamed to something like "chemical biology" in
Future of Chemistry academic institutions. The strongly synthetic character of chemistry sets it apart from the "discovery" sciences such as physics, biology, astronomy and the Earth sciences. "Chemistry creates its object" as a French chemist wrote in 1860. The downside of this focus on making stuff is that chemists can be portrayed as inveterate tinkers - tweaking the molecular world to satisfy their curiosity, sometimes for fun and sometimes for profit. And it makes it especially hard to see where industrial chemistry ends and academic chemistry

Figure 12-37 Future of Chemistry [view large image]

begins. Recently in 2006, the Nature magazine asked many leading chemists what are the field's big questions. They have come up with six very important subjects in the arena of chemistry (Figure 12-37):
  1. How do we design molecules with specific functions and dynamic?
  2. What is the chemical basis of the cell?
  3. How do we make the materials needed for the future, in energy, aerospace or medicine?
  4. What is the chemical basis of thought and memory?
  5. How did life on Earth begin, and how and where might it begin on other world?
  6. How can we explore all the possible permutations of all the elements?
In this list, some items look suspiciously like industrial application, while the others can be categorized into interdisciplinary fields. As one chemist admits: there is no Holy Grail in chemistry; satisfaction comes from the chase, not the catch.

The year 2011 is designated as the International Year of Chemistry in honour of the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie receiving the Nobel Prize. The Nature magazine (6 January 2011) has listed ten priorities for the forthcoming decades by checking out ten leading chemists. Table 12-08 presents a summary of their choices.

Priority Brief Description Related Field(s)
Universal Science Base of all the innovations in the future Energy, public health, new materials
Better Living Fundamental to high living standard C, N, P cycles, energy-saving process
Greener Chemical Processes Chemical productions with minimal waste and hazard Minerals productions and substitutions
Production of polymers Mimic production of carbohydrate polymers in nature Bio-chemistry
Chemical self-assembly New and sophisticated ways to synthesize molecules Synthetic chemistry
Photosynthesis Replication Efficient, cheap and robust ways to mimic photosynthesis Bio-chemistry
Selective Interactions Greater control over inter-molecular interactions is required for the design of polymers Bio-chemistry, organic chemistry
Solar Power Generation of efficient photovoltaic material In plastics, paint or ceramics
Sustainable Living Development of energy, resources, ... to improve living standard Organic, inorganic, physical, polymer, material and bio chemistries
Catalyze Energy Production Development of better batteries, novel methods of energy production Material chemistry

Table 12-08 Ten Priorities in Chemistry

Scientific American (October 2011) does it a bit differently by listing 10 Unsolved Mysteries in Chemistry as summarized in Table 12-09 below :

Mystery Progress in Finding a Solution Prospect
How Did Life Begin? Theories on RNA world, clay catalysts, ... Testing of the theories in laboratory
How Do Molecules Form? Calculated structure for simple molecules Extension to more complicated molecules
How Does the Environment Influence Our Genes? Epigenetic marker can reactivate a gene via environmental influence Finding out the extent of the influence to reset the pluripotency of the cell
How Does the Brain Think and Form Memories? Memories are formed by increasing synaptic strength and growth of new synapses Finding out the process for memory recall
How Many Elements Exist? Synthetic elements created up to atomic number 118 Checking out the limit (if there's any) for super-heavy elements
Can Computers Be Made Out of Carbon? Graphene is excellent material for use in electronic circuitry Developing techniques for etching graphene circuits
How Do We Tap More Solar Energy? Experiment to mimic photosynthesis Finding an inexpensive catalyst
What Is the Best Way to Make Biofuels? Converting low-grade biomass (such as lignin and cellulose) into fuel Finding an inexpensive, efficient and easy to scale-up way
Can We Devise New Ways to Create Drugs? Picking out useful drugs from random assembly of molecules Finding better ways (such as using DNA as bar code) to pick out the useful drugs
Can We Continuously Monitor Our Own Chemistry? Some chemical sensors for detecting concentration of glucose (in the blood), ... etc. Developing new kinds of sensors (fast, cheap, sensitive) to detect contaminants, pollutants, pathogens (in bloodstream), ...

Table 12-09 Ten Unsolved Mysteries in Chemistry

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