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Vol. 27 No. 5
September-October 2005

This invited paper was presented in support and recognition of the Cuban chemical community at the 5th International Conference on Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, held 18–22 October 2004 in Havana, Cuba.

Challenges for Chemists

by Charles P. Casey

During my tenure as president of the American Chemical Society in 2004, I have tried to focus attention on the challenges that chemists and chemistry face. Some of these challenges were outlined in the National Research Council report Beyond the Molecular Frontier: Challenges for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (National Research Council, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2003 <www.nap.edu/books/0309084776/html>). This report comes at a critical time, when the challenges that chemists and chemistry face continue to grow. More than two years in the making, the report had more than 170 contributors, and was prepared by a committee—co-chaired by Ronald Breslow and Matthew V. Tirrell—of 17 distinguished chemists and chemical engineers.

Beyond the Molecular Frontier is the latest in a series of reports from the National Research Council (NRC) on the future of chemistry or chemical engineering. While previous reports focused either on chemistry (Westheimer, 1965, Chemistry: Opportuni-ties and Needs, and Pimentel, 1985, Opportunities in Chemistry) or chemical engineering (Amundsen, 1988, Frontiers in Chemical Engineering: Research Needs and Opportunities), it is significant that the latest report covers both areas and underscores the growing importance of interdisciplinary cooperation between chemists and chemical engineers. These earlier reports were important in setting the direction of chemistry in the United States, and I hope that Beyond the Molecular Frontier will also influence the direction of chemistry.

The report offers us a snapshot as well as a vision: a snapshot of where research in the chemical sciences stands today, and a vision of how advances that seem possible in the near term could contribute to a brighter future. Above all, it presents “grand challenges,” as well as wonderful opportunities for chemistry professionals and for society.

I have outlined some of the challenges cited in Beyond the Molecular Frontier, and encourage readers to look at the full report and the reports of the workshops that helped to frame it.* The challenges and opportunities for each country will be different, depending on local problems and local resources, but many of the challenges will be common to many countries.

Challenges in Synthesis
Chemistry is one of the few sciences that creates new materials rather than simply studying the physical universe. Chemists are challenged to develop highly selective, energy efficient, and environmentally benign new synthetic methods. For example, synthetic chemists will need to devise ways to predictably carry out synthesis on the surfaces of semiconductor chips to enable the attachment of genes for use in diagnosis.

Chemists and chemical engineers will need to work together to develop new processes that are greener by design. Atom economy and energy efficiency will become crucial elements for ensuring sustainability of the chemical enterprise. The application of green chemistry principles will help to reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances.

Alternatives to Fossil Fuels
Due to the finite supply of fossil fuels, and because of global warming from CO2 emissions when they are burned, we are challenged to develop inexpensive and unlimited energy sources to enable a sustainable future. Inexpensive and more efficient photocells will be part of the solution. More efficient methods for nuclear fuel production and safer methods of handling radioactive waste will enable the use of nuclear energy.

Moving towards a hydrogen economy will enable the use of clean energy for transportation. Improved methods for transporting and storing hydrogen and improved fuel cells for utilization of hydrogen will need to be developed. Of course, we will still require new energy sources for the production of hydrogen.

Self-Assembly and Nanoscience
Self-assembly and nanoscience hold great promise for the development of interesting new materials. Properties change drastically in the nanometer range; this is the range between single molecules and bulk materials. As we move towards a revolution in nanoscience, we need to understand the structures of materials on a smaller and smaller scale, and of single molecules and self-assembled arrays of molecules on a larger and larger scale. Self-assembled arrays and self-optimizing systems offer the promise of exciting functionality and possibly behavior.

Physical Chemistry
Advances in physical chemistry should lead to an understanding of how molecules change and react over shorter and shorter time scales and across a full range of molecular sizes. The ability to follow reactions over the picosecond timescale will allow the direct observation of bond making and bond breaking. The ability to investigate and manipulate single molecules will open new avenues to the study of reactions. Bond-selective chemistry will result from selective laser activation of specific bonds. Computing and modeling of larger systems will open new vistas in biophysical chemistry.

Safety, Security, and Defense
Chemical plant security needs to be improved through the substitution of less toxic chemicals for use in processes. Designing processes that minimize the accumulation of hazardous materials would increase the inherent safety of plants. We are challenged to develop robust and selective sensors to help protect our nations against disease and terrorism.

A huge and obvious way in which countries can improve their security is by achieving energy independence. In my view, the root cause of terrorism is the gap between developing and developed countries. Transferring technology to enable developing countries to set up the most modern and efficient means for energy generation and materials synthesis will help to narrow this gap, as will the use of green insecticides and genetic engineering to increase world agricultural production.

Challenges at the Interface with Biology and with Medicine
As chemistry expands into the interfaces with biology, materials science, and environmental sciences, new challenges are presented that will require teamwork among scientists in many disciplines. Biological chemists are challenged to understand the complex interactions among cell components and to work on teams with biologists to understand the processes of life in molecular terms. Research will be needed at the interface between chemistry and biophysics to understand how protein sequence determines protein folding, and eventually protein function.

Medicinal chemists are challenged to find new drugs that will operate by mediating protein-protein interactions. Therapies for preserving memory, for slowing the aging process, and for controlling obesity will require fundamental advances. While pharmaceutical chemists have been largely successful in controlling bacterial infections, new drugs for treating viral diseases like AIDS and Ebola are sorely needed. Drugs to better prevent rejection of transplanted organs and biocompatible materials for organ replacement still need to be developed. New ways of delivering drugs to targeted cells would dramatically increase their efficacy. The opportunity presented by the determination of the structure of the human genome will be followed by advances in proteomics and bio-informatics that promise to lead to new diagnostic methods and to new therapies.

Challenges at the Interface with Environmental Sciences
Chemists, in cooperation with other scientists, need to develop a better understanding of the atmosphere and the biosphere so that we can maintain a livable environment.

Challenges at the Interface with Materials Chemistry
These challenges include the design of molecular devices and new materials with predictable and tunable properties. Materials chemists are challenged to design and synthesize new electronic and optoelectronic materials, high-temperature superconductors, and new composites and ceramics.

Communication Challenges
As chemists, we all share the goal of communicating chemistry’s tremendous contributions to society and the increasingly important role that chemistry must play in meeting challenges of the future. To recruit students into chemistry, we must convince them that they are needed to help meet the challenges of preserving the environment, developing renewable energy sources, discovering drugs, and synthesizing nanoscale materials. We will rely on chemistry teachers at all levels to inspire students to use their own potential to unlock chemistry’s still hidden secrets. If we present these critical human needs and challenges to the best and brightest students, we can attract them into the chemical sciences.

If I have any criticism of the Beyond the Molecular Frontier, it is that it attempts to be too comprehensive and thus does not provide sufficient emphasis and focus. We can all find our favorite problems in the report, but how do we choose those that are the most important? By speaking about the challenges facing chemists and chemical engineers, I have tried to catalyze discussion of the most important problems. To avoid leaving off the readers’s favorite challenge, I present lists of five challenges, with the fifth one being “your problem here.” I have encouraged audiences to make their own short lists of priorities for chemical research and to share their ideas with me and their colleagues.

Setting Priorities
I urge all chemical scientists to make a list of five major societal problems that require advances in basic chemistry, five advances in basic chemistry that enable new opportunities for chemists, and five modern achievements of basic chemistry that have had major impacts on our science and our society. As you read this article, I hope you will think about your personal list and what you could do to contribute to advances in chemistry. Chemical scientists need these shorter and more focused lists of challenges when trying to increase public or government support for chemistry.

Below is my own list of the five most important societal problems that will require advances in basic chemistry. When I present this to audiences, I have found that there is general agreement with the list and a variety of suggestions for a fifth problem. Suggestions have included enabling human space travel, developing useful molecular machines utilizing nanoscience, attacking global warming by development of CO2 sequestration, understanding chemical communication mechanisms, promoting technology transfer to developing countries so that they can use the safest and most modern means of energy generation, and materials synthesis.

We all find it much more difficult to think of advances in basic chemistry that will enable new opportunities. Consider how hard it would have been 50 years ago to conceive of the advances in structure determination that would be enabled by the development of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy! In response to my second list, I’ve received other suggestions, including development of techniques to directly observe very low concentrations of reactive intermediates, which would revolutionize mechanistic chemistry and our understanding of the molecular basis of life processes. The later would require an understanding of the self-assembly of complex systems, self replication, and systems for energy generation; these advances could lead to an understanding of the molecular origin of life on earth.

For chemists, it’s easy to think of many modern achievements of basic chemistry that have had major impacts on society. The difficult task is to limit the list to five. As an organometallic chemist, I had an easy job in filling the top of my list. Other suggested achievements included the introduction of chlorofluorocarbons to resolve stratospheric ozone depletion; advances in computational chemistry, including density functional theory for handling larger molecules; laser chemistry; the development of higher temperature superconducting materials; and the determination of the structure of the human genome.

I am convinced that if chemists focus their creative energies on today’s challenges, they can turn them into opportunities for tomorrow’s achievements.

*NRC workshop reports: Health and Medicine: Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century (2004), Energy and Transportation: Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century (2003), Information and Communications: Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century (2003), The Environment: Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century (2003), National Security and Homeland Defense: Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century (2003), published by National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

Charles P. Casey <casey@chem.wisc.edu> is a professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. Casey is the immediate past president of the American Chemical Society.


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