Chemistry is sometimes referred to as the central science, since it concerns itself with matter that forms the basis of physics, biology, and other natural sciences. It’s a fascinating, endlessly complex subject.
Chemistry emerged from the ancient pseudoscience of alchemy, in which arcane practitioners blended vaguely scientific methods with symbolic mysticism in search of the elixir of life and the ability to change substances into gold.
Humans have been manipulating and transforming natural substances, such as gold, copper, and tin, for thousands of years. Even the utilization of fire is an application of chemistry: light and heat are generated as a byproduct of the combustion reaction.
But by the 17th and 18th centuries, chemistry emerged as a true science. Since then, the rate of discoveries in the field has been astounding. The basic principles of chemistry — the atom, the periodic table, the molecule, bonding, chemical reactions — have led to massive innovations across modern society.
That rate of discovery hasn’t slowed in the last quarter century. So without further ado, let’s dive into the most important chemistry discoveries from the last 25 years.
The 5 Biggest Chemistry Breakthroughs of the Last 25 Years
1. Synthesis of Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes (1992)
Carbon nanotubes are fascinating molecules built solely of carbon atoms in the shape of a tube, as the name implies. As the name also implies, they are fantastically small — around a nanometer in diameter.
Carbon nanotubes were first discovered in 1952, when a pair of Soviet scientists published research on the phenomenon. Nanotubes have some unusual properties that lead them to be extremely useful in certain engineering and industrial applications. For example, they exhibit superconductivity of heat and electricity under the proper conditions. Carbon nanotubes and related materials in the “fullerene” family also have extensive uses in biomedical research and medical treatment. They have an extremely high structural integrity, and are often incorporated in modern carbon fiber materials.
The study and application of carbon nanotubes is still in its infancy, and possible future uses include ultra-strong body armor, quantum computing, and, as some science fiction writers have envisioned, “elevators to space.”
In 1992, a group of scientists led by T. Ebbesen and P. Ajayan in Japan published their research on methods for creating carbon nanotubes in a lab. Their method used an arc-discharge technique in a helium-atmosphere chamber to create deposits of carbon nanotubes. This was a game-changing moment for chemistry, since it represented one of the most significant success stories in the artificial synthesis of commercially valuable nano-scale substances.
2. Successful Synthesis of Taxol (1994)
Taxol is a chemical compound that was first discovered in 1962 in the bark of the Pacific Yew tree by researchers looking for drugs to treat cancer patients; subsequent research showed that, as had been suspected, the compound was highly effective in treating many forms of cancer.
Concern grew throughout the following years as thousands of Pacific Yew trees were found and cut down. A lucrative black market even targeted trees within the boundaries of protected areas such as national parks. The Pacific Yew is somewhat uncommon, and grows extremely slowly, and overharvesting led to concerns that it would be driven to extinction and that taxol would be lost as a treatment option.
In 1994, a research team led by Robert A. Holton at Florida State University published their research on a successful synthetic creation of taxol. Their method began with a commercially available compound, patchoulene oxide, and used a sequence of 37 chemical reactions to create synthetic taxol.
Today, synthesized taxol (which goes by the generic name Paclitaxel) is used very widely around the world as a chemotherapy drug, and the Pacific Yew is largely free of threats from overharvesting.
3. Description of Surface Chemistry (1998)
The fundamentals behind basic chemistry that take place on surfaces, such as what causes iron to rust, have been understood for a long time. But believe it or not, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the details of these processes were unraveled.
It took the work of Gerhard Ertl, a chemist based in Germany, to unravel the mysteries. Ertl focused on surface chemistry for his entire career, but it wasn’t until he was nearing retirement that he truly figured out the mysteries behind some of the fundamental technologies of the modern age.
Most interesting, perhaps, is Ertl’s research into the catalytic synthesis of ammonia over iron (the Haber Bosch process, through which the majority of the world’s supply of fertilizers is created and which is responsible for keeping more than one third of the world’s population alive) and the oxidation of carbon monoxide over platinum, which is the key reaction in catalytic converters that help clean polluted air coming out of tailpipes and smokestacks.
Using new technologies like ultraviolet photoelectron spectroscopy and scanning tunneling microscopes, Ertl’s research showed in detail, at the molecular level, what was occurring. His research affects many fields, but is noted for informing a new generation of less environmentally harmful technology.
4. Nano-Scale Microscopy (2000)
While electron microscopes have long been able to shed light into the small world, they have limitations. And at larger scales, optical or “light” microscopes — similar to the ones you’ve probably used in science class — have been the standard for decades. But light microscopes have limits defined by the wavelength of the light itself, and it’s long been understood that Abbe’s Diffraction Limit of 0.2 μm (about 500 times thinner than a human hair) represented the absolute limit of resolution.
But in 2000, researchers in separate locations (Stefan Hell in Germany, and Eric Betzig and William Moerner in the United States) developed solutions that allow light microscopes to resolve much smaller objects — down to the level of 1 nanometer. These new methods allow researchers to observe things like viruses, proteins, and even small molecules without having to use electron microscopes or other methods, which have their own drawbacks (for example, electron microscopes require inert, dead subjects).
Their method uses fluorescent molecules to change the wavelength of light emitted from the subject, enabling a light microscope to gather more details than ever before.
These advances make it possible to peer inside living cells and observe processes such as DNA unfolding and protein interactions occurring in real time, which has huge implications for all fields of medicine.
5. Insights Into the Beginning of Life on Earth (2011)
The chemical origins of life on Earth are a mystery that will likely never be completely unraveled, but there is a lot to be learned. In 2011, steps were taken in that understanding by several teams of scientists conducting experiments designed to replicate the environment in which early life forms may have emerged.
James Boncella, at Los Alamos Laboratory in the United States, led the research into how early cell-like organisms may have harvested energy from the environment using primitive vesicles. These vesicles, constructed of basic molecular building blocks like polyaromatic hydrocarbons and fatty acids, were able to capture metal ions and harvest protons in the experiments Boncella conducted.
Meanwhile, a team led by Stephen Mann at the University of Bristol made some fascinating discoveries in the realm of silicon-based life forms, creating silica “protocells” that have permeable cell walls, like carbon-based life, and can also host functioning enzymes.
In many ways, we are living in a golden age of chemistry. While major discoveries are somewhat rare, new technology and equipment available around the world have made investigation easier than ever. Total scientific knowledge in chemistry is expanding at an extremely rapid rate, and there is more to be discovered around every corner.
Who knows what discoveries will be next?
Do you want to learn more about the fundamentals of chemistry? If so, check out the Brainscape chemistry subject, or sound off in the comments with what you think are the most interesting discoveries in chemistry.
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