Selling chemistry to a new generation
IT IS all too easy to paint a grim picture of chemistry in the UK. Undergraduate enrolment in chemistry courses began to plummet in the late air max 95 1990s, bottoming out in 2003 with barely 3000 students. These dwindling numbers, coupled with the high cost of teaching the subject, have led some universities to shut down their departments. Chemists graduating from the University of Exeter, King’s College London and Queen Mary, University of London, have all seen windows boarded up behind them.
Countless papers, talks and initiatives have been spawned in an effort to entice students back into the field. Working chemists should venture into classrooms, they say, armed with demonstrations of the big, loud and dangerous reactions of past schooldays. Chemistry teachers should have chemistry degrees to impart their enthusiasm to students, reckons the UK government.
But maybe there is a simpler way to turn the tide: good old fashioned PR. One way to do this is by demonstrating how chemistry can step up to the challenges of the modern world, be it answering energy needs, addressing climate change or improving our health. So New Scientist polled a selection of leading chemists and asked them what we should be celebrating in today’s chemistry, and how this research will answer the future demands of life, just as it has done for the past 200 years.
At the forefront of modern chemistry are new energy technologies. It is up to chemists to sort out an alternative to burning fossil fuels, says Nobel laureate and former president of the Royal Society of Chemistry Harry Kroto. One of the most promising avenues is cheap photovoltaic cells. Solar cells are currently made with silicon, which although abundant on Earth, occurs as silicon dioxide. Refining it to make pure silicon is a costly endeavour, requiring temperatures of up to 1900 C, meaning that manufacturing a solar cell can consume more energy than the cell eventually produces.
Now chemistry is offering the possibility of making photovoltaics from cheap organic polymers, or plastics, such as those developed by Richard Friend at the University of Cambridge. What’s more, these thin, flexible materials can essentially be printed out by an ink jet printer. “The possibility of producing large areas of solar cells by printing them on a printing press sounds like a major breakthrough to me,” says Kroto. “At some point we need to design technologies that produce and store energy from the sun at the same rate as we consume it.” For Kroto, the ultimate goal would be to take photovoltaics and use them to break apart the highly energetic bond between oxygen and hydrogen in water molecules producing pure hydrogen fuel.
It will also be chemistry that is ultimately behind technologies to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, says Gerry Lawless, head of the recently reprieved chemistry department at the University of Sussex in Brighton. “Chemists are the only ones who can provide those answers. Our atmosphere is a air max 95 giant chemical solution.” For example, researchers in the US and Canada are working on ways to scrub the atmosphere of excess CO2, based on hydroxides that absorb the gas.
For Martyn Poliakoff meanwhile, who specialises in green chemistry at the University of Nottingham, one of chemistry’s most vital frontiers is finding environmentally responsible ways to manufacture chemicals and products. For example, he has collaborated with chemists in Ethiopia and at Procter Gamble to create plastic bags made from local sugar cane. “If you can do this, then Ethiopia doesn’t have to import oil to make pe air max 95 troleum based plastics, and when the bags are thrown on the ground the cows can just eat them.”
Of course, chemistry’s future lies not only in energy and materials but also at the molecular level of biology, says Lawless. “Our understanding of biology is deep enough now that we can apply chemical techniques to its study.” Take the report in Nature last year by Stephen Fesik at Abbott Laboratories in Chicago. By interfering with the proteins that help cancer cells avoid programmed cell death, or apoptosis, they were able to kill tumours and also improve the efficacy of radiation treatment and chemotherapy. It is thinking like this at a chemical level that will advance the next generation of antibiotics, which are desperately needed to fight the growing plague of resistant infections such as MRSA, says Lawless.
For David Lathbury, director of process chemistr air max 95 y at AstraZeneca R the real excitement lies in our new ability to create commercial scale quantities of medically important natural chemicals. He points to the work of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis with discodermolide, a potent anti cancer drug isolated from sea sponges,. “They made around 600 grams of that material. Ten or 15 years ago we couldn’t have made 6 grams. It was a Herculean effort but it did show how the field has moved on.”