Chemistry Innovations that Changed the World

Chemistry Innovations That Changed the World

The week of October 16–22 is National Chemistry Week 2016. It’s an annual event coordinated by the American Chemical Society (ACS) to raise public awareness of the importance of chemistry in everyday life. What better time to highlight chemistry innovations that changed our world for the better?

Ironically, while many life-changing products (most medicines, for example) began with chemical discoveries, the study of reactions between chemicals and substances is easily overshadowed by the sciences that seem to capture public imagination today.

Our non-scientific list of top chemistry-driven advances blends classics and rising stars, focusing on health, energy and technology. Many of the innovations began with chemistry before expanding into biology, physics, medicine, geology, engineering and other disciplines. (There’s a reason why the field is called by some the “central science.”)

Some entries highlight a luminary, but it goes without saying that all include a long chain of advances, before or after the most well-known discovery. It’s a reminder that innovation is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process. All of the breakthroughs continue to evolve and help transform the future.

Here, then, are six advances to consider:

1.    Fertilizers

In 1910, German physical chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch devised a large-scale process to synthesize ammonia by combining atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen, thereby creating a breakthrough new crop fertilizer. The Haber-Bosch process soon revolutionized agriculture, enabling dramatically higher food production by freeing growers from dependence on manure as a traditional fertilizer.

Nearly a century later, the process was lauded by the academic Vaclav Smil as a “technological marvel” and the single greatest “detonator” of a global population that exploded from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7.3 billion today. Moreover, an estimated 80 percent of the nitrogen in our bodies (a critical component of protein and other biological molecules) today comes from this single chemical reaction, delivered though a revolutionized food chain.

In its 2016 GAP Report, the Global Harvest Initiative highlights the importance of building resilience by investing in agriculture productivity that helps farmers of all scales succeed. Precision agriculture and the proper use of nitrogen fertilizers are featured in the report.

2.    Vaccines

School children everywhere know Louis Pasteur as the inventor of the namesake process that destroys bacteria by boiling, then cooling, everything from milk to silkworms. Far fewer realize that the French chemistry professor’s work on Pasteurization and “Germ Theory” led directly to his development of vaccines for rabies, anthrax, tuberculosis, cholera smallpox and other diseases. (Pasteur’s earlier work in crystals also led to the field of stereochemistry.) Vaccination has saved countless lives.

3.    Penicillin

This drug stands as a shining example of different fields of science and nations collaborating to save millions of lives. British physician/bacteriologist Alexander Fleming generally gets credit for discovering penicillin in 1928. But it took a team of chemists led by Australian pharmacologist Howard Florey to devise a way to purify and produce a drug in usable amounts, more than a decade later. Full-scale production by American firms took off in 1944 when MIT-trained chemical engineer Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau helped design the first large-scale production plant.

4.    Protective Fabrics

What good is it to hydrate, clean, feed, and heal the human body, only to risk injury or death from extreme heat and cold, fire, bullets, toxins, asbestos or other dangers? Beginning in the 1960s, DuPont led a wave of innovation, introducing new fabrics and materials that offered unimagined new levels of practical head-to-toe protection and safety.

Today, police, firefighters, environmental workers, miners, pilots, astronauts, even racecar drivers around the world rely on DuPont™ Kevlar®, Nomex® and Tyvek® to protect against bullets, heat, cold and other threats. And supportive, stretchable and breathable materials like Lycra® have revolutionized everything from work out gear and athletic uniforms to bras and girdles and, of course, heavy metal chic.

5.    Renewable, Sustainable Energy

In the early 1900s, Italian photochemist Giacomo Luigi Ciamician installed a solar panel on the roof of his laboratory. It illuminated one bulb inside; the impact of this advance has picked up considerably since then.

A century later: Ciamician is known as “Father of the Solar Panel”. Solar, one of many forms of renewable energy, has evolved from a single beam to mainstream — a practical solution for global energy demand. In the United States, 748,000 homes and businesses now rely on solar-generated electricity. China, the world’s leading solar power market since 2015, plans to add more than 80 gigawatts of solar power though 2020. New advances in solar panel protection, such as DuPont™ Tedlar® backsheets, promises to lower costs further and extend the useful life of a solar panel to over 30 years.

DuPont is also working to develop advanced biofuels from feedstock such as corn stover. Advanced biofuels, also known as second-generation biofuels, are produced from renewable biomass that is not used for human or animal consumption — turning waste into fuel through science and innovation.

Advances like these, coupled with work in with polymer science, electrochemistry, microbiology and other fields are helping scientists promote conservation and develop sustainable sources like solar, wind and hydro power to meet global energy demand forecast to increase by 36 percent by 2035.

6.    Information Anywhere

At first glance, modern display technology is less obvious than other chemistry-driven advances bettering our lives. But consider: virtually all the devices we depend on for communicating, learning, creating, traveling, and entertaining ourselves — from smartphones, computers, tablets, TVs, digital watches and cameras to instrument panels for cars, airplanes and industrial equipment — Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) displays. And that’s just the start.

New OLED technologies enable inkjet or screen-printing of complex electronic circuits onto thin plastic sheets, substrate or electroluminescent polymers. That’s opened the door for lightweight, flexible, low-energy OLEDs that can be curved, transparent, touch-sensitive, weather-proofed, miniaturized or giant-sized, rolled up, embedded in fabric and designed into everything from better computer screens to sneakers, high-fashion garments, goggles, wallpapers, and safety clothing to low-energy lights and signs. What began in the 1960s as the brilliant offspring of chemistry and engineering is now both the ubiquitous window and bright, shining displayer of the exciting convergence of our digital, electronic, chemical and physical worlds.

Which chemistry innovations would be on your list?

 

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